Northern Virginia still tops global data center markets (and, what’s a gigawatt?)

Cushman & Wakefield’s 2022 rankings of the Top 10 Data Center markets in the world places Northern Virginia at the top, a title it has held for years. And it is not even close.

Silicon Valley and Singapore tie for second largest data center markets globally, followed by Chicago and Atlanta, which also tied.

But the size of Northern Virginia’s data market, as measured by power consumed by data centers, is twice as big as the second-largest market, and there appears to be no stopping its growth.

“The rate of increase is just mind boggling. The market is adding anywhere from 300 to 400 megawatts, a third of a gigawatt, every few months. It just keeps multiplying and multiplying,” said Kevin Imboden, senior research manager for Cushman & Wakefield’s data center advisory group.

Cushman & Wakefield’s 2022 report predicts Northern Virginia will soon become the world’s first two gigawatt data center market. To put that in perspective, that is two billion watts, or enough to perpetually power 1.5 million homes.

Vantage Data Centers is one of the companies with a location in Ashburn, Virginia. It has a 42-acre campus there. (AP/Business Wire)

Northern Virginia is No. 1 for internet data, at least in part, because it all started in Northern Virginia.

“The internet was essentially born in Northern Virginia through a military project out of DARPA. So the original backbone and fiber is there. And fiber creates more fiber because more networks get put in Northern Virginia. And then all the clients followed,” Imboden said.

“Today, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, they are all there. So all the companies that partner with them need to be there. And in turn, they are all marketing to the multinational companies that are in D.C. and all the government agencies.”

Data center developers also continue to be attracted to the Northern Virginia market by low utility rates, generous tax breaks and land availability, which is greater than many supply-constrained areas.

Loudoun County, and specifically the Ashburn area — known as “Data Center Alley” — as well as Prince William County are where the vast majority of data centers are located in Northern Virginia.

Megawatts, or power consumed by data centers, is the industry standard for measuring the size of markets, not square footage of data centers. And, it is definitely not measured by the amount of data that moves through servers.

A widely-cited statistic is that 70% of the world’s internet traffic flows through data centers in Northern Virginia.

“I see that all the time too. As far as I can tell, that is completely untrue. I don’t see how that is measurable, because nobody quite has an idea of all of the world’s Internet traffic. We could try to estimate it, but to see where the data is flowing, you’d have to have access to all networks. I know that quote gets put up everywhere, but I don’t know how anyone knows that,” Imboden said.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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