At Issue: County Opens Data Center to Private Startups

Howard County, Md., uses empty data center space to host an "innovation showcase."

by / November 28, 2012
Ira Levy, Howard County CIO

Local governments, smacked by the recession, embarked with a vengeance on  server consolidation and virtualization. Doing this not only saved money, it also led to more available data center space -- which encouraged shared services to help fill up that space and offset utility and other fixed data center costs.

Howard County, Md., went down that road, but about six months ago, CIO Ira Levy looked at one such data center -- that was richly connected by fiber to state, local and institutional resources; had lots of vacant space, generator backup and everything you could want in a data center. "So I was looking at this data center and thought, 'Besides setting up a bowling alley, what can we do with this space?'"

Howard County was already looking for ways to support innovation and economic development, and had launched the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship. So Levy talked to a number of local businesses that might have some entrepreneurial or incubator potential. He quickly discovered they occupied several stages of development. "There's the, 'I have an idea and I want to code something up,'" said Levy, "and those are usually leveraging the Amazon Web Services, or some sort of cloud offering, so that's the very, very early incubator stage stuff."

Then, he said, there were companies that "already had an idea, had developed an application, placed it on a server or some piece of hardware, and needed to take this product, put it on a network, to prove a point or a concept to somebody."

Those companies interested Levy, especially the ones creating products that had some application to local government, that could develop and fine-tune their products on the networked environment. "This is an IT version of a wet lab," said Levy, using an analogy from Howard County's many biotech firms.

A number of firms that needed a "half a rack" of space stepped up, he said. One IT security startup, Secure Technologies Group, offered to contribute to the county by way of offering security services, alerts, etc., in exchange for access to the network and a half-rack of server space. They could bring potential customers in to demonstrate the application in use on a large network.

The county signed its first agreement with Secure Technologies Group, that essentially said the partners couldn't blame one another if something went wrong. "This was just to see if this would work," said Levy. "We hooked up their rack, they brought their stuff in, they hooked up a monitor on the wall. The company started to work with the county, began bringing in potential customers and started to run their business."

While a proof of concept pilot seemed like a good fit, however, Levy wasn't sure the county IT department was the right organization to be running a sustained economic development support program. So the next step was to reach out to the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, which went well. The county "caged off" a portion of the data center that will hold 15 more racks for use by startups. The environment is not meant for long-term use by companies, but as a temporary solution in the proof-of-concept stages. 

Levy says "data center incubator" has the connotation of companies that are only conceptual, in very early stages of development. He prefers the term "innovation showcase" as more accurate. The county is currently hashing out which companies to accept and what criteria to apply. Right now a high-priority company would be based in Howard County, would be of a certain size, and would have some product or service of value to Howard County or the public sector.

One thing the county had to look at was the relative value of space. For example, could the data center be converted to office space to save money on leased county office space? What kind of return might be obtained by maintaining the space as a data center, a portion of which houses private-sector startups?

Levy said the county is evaluating several companies for the project, one of which is interested in doing a proof of concept in blocking Internet traffic from certain countries. Another company has a product to route contracts securely for signatures to participating companies and internally to the county. "They have the product developed," said Levy, "it's in a box and they just want to try it out to see if it works."

Levy says the next step might be providing a local point of presence for telecom carriers' Internet equipment, and two carriers have expressed an interest in that.

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.