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Welcome to Las Vegas - Home of the technology superpower you've never heard of
Rob Roy seizes Enron's busted dream
Exclusive Drive a couple of blocks past the Loose Caboose and the Carburetor Shop on E. Sahara Avenue in Las Vegas, and you'll find one of the world's leading technology companies. The name of the company - Switch Communications - will go unrecognized by almost all of you. That's because it has operated in near total secrecy for the last few years. Switch has preferred to keep its gold mine a need-to-know type of affair. "Pay no attention to the secure fortress in the strip mall."
A few months ago, word of Switch's apparently fantastic operations started to reach my in-box. Most of the people who visited the Switch facility were bound by non-disclosure agreements, but that failed to stop them from leaking out a few choice details. "This is the most advanced computing center in the world," I was told. "It's like the internet superhighway wrapped up in one package. All the heavies are there."
Ever a cynic, I struggled to match these claims with the total lack of public information available on Switch. Companies fall all over themselves to issue press releases about things as a minor as cost-savings achieved by changing toilet paper suppliers. If a technology giant really existed in Las Vegas of all places, then it should be patting itself on the back and then letting city officials finish off the job with celebrations of their own.
As Switch's CEO Rob Roy tells it, however, the company had good reason to avoid publicity.
Legend has it that the company managed to acquire what was once meant to be Enron's broadband trading hub for a song. This gave Switch access to more than twenty of the primary carrier backbones in a single location. Switch tied this vast network to existing data center hosting facilities and attracted military clients, among others, to its Las Vegas shop.
Roy argues that drawing undue attention to this facility would go against the military customers' best wishes. There are rooms at the Switch facility that require top secret clearance, preventing even Roy from entering them.
But Switch has now decided to forgo the code of silence as its business expands on a massive scale.
In the next couple of months, Switch will open a new facility located just a few miles from the McCarran International Airport called the SuperNAP. Roy describes the 407,000 square foot facility as the most energy efficient, tightly packed data center on the planet. He expects it to be filled by the world's most prominent companies, including just about every technology heavyweight you can think of and the major media conglomerates. The SuperNAP monstrosity looks to stand as just a starting point for Switch with the company's investors urging it to build close to 10 similar centers around the globe. Such an undertaking could strap actual muscle to the cloud and utility computing buzzwords that have become commonplace in the technology industry.
Come November, Switch will throw a huge party at the SuperNAP for its investors, top customers, employees and the local bigwigs in the real estate and casino businesses. The event was pushed back to November, so that Nevada's two US senators could attend the gala.
So much for staying quiet.
You'll Need a Rob Roy to Face the Security
"Those companies (Google, Microsoft and others) spending $500m on their data centers can only do one fourth of what we can do at the new site," Roy told me. "What we are building has three or four times the power and cooling of the other guys."
This is how Roy talks. Everything is on a massive scale. Everything clobbers the competition. Everything is "Look at how much ass we kick. The competitors have no hope. We do a damn good job, and our customers know it."
Roy exhibits such unabashed enthusiasm for Switch's accomplishments that it seems almost miraculous for him to have rejected public accolades over the past 8 years.
The 38 year-old CEO insists that he stayed quiet to protect his customers and because businesses was so good that Switch didn't need the attention.
Part of me believes this line. I spent weeks calling and e-mailing Switch, trying to secure an interview with Roy or, in fact, anyone at the company. The polite receptionist would take the same message every time, but nothing resembling a returned phone call materialized.
Then I learned that Sun Microsystems had a significant presence inside of Switch's existing hosting facility. On a lark, I sent a note to Chairman and co-founder Scott McNealy to see if he knew anything about this Rob Roy fella. Twelve hours later, Roy was on the phone.