Involta data center opens in Duluth

Twelve-inch-thick concrete walls. Fifty-one security cameras. Multiple backup generators and cooling systems to keep operations going, no matter what.

Lucas Mistelske, manager of Involta's new data center, talks about the center's services in the data hall that will hold clients' computer servers. (Steve Kuchera /

Twelve-inch-thick concrete walls. Fifty-one security cameras. Multiple backup generators and cooling systems to keep operations going, no matter what.

They're some of the disaster-proof features of the new first-class Involta data center on Technology Drive in Duluth, which has its grand opening celebration at 3 p.m. today.

But the Iowa-based company chose Duluth for its latest center because the city is less prone to disaster. It's less congested than big cities and considered safe from terrorism and most natural disasters. The site near Arrowhead and Rice Lake roads is away from trains, freeways and combustibles and out of the flight path for the Duluth International Airport. Power lines are safely underground. And set on high ground, it was immune even from Duluth's 10-inch June rain.

"We build, manage and maintain the centers," center manager Lucas Mistelske said, noting that Involta built its own fiber network in Duluth to do it. "We're in the business of hosting."

The 24,000-square-foot center will store critical data for businesses in an elaborately secure, climate-controlled environment. There are multiple backup systems for power, cooling and fire suppression -- even though the center is fire-resistant, from its concrete floors to its concrete roof. Authorized personnel will have to pass through several security checks for access, including an iris eye scan more accurate than retina scans and fingerprints.


The center's opening puts Duluth on the data storage map.

It's the first critical data storage center in the Northland, built by a fast-growing company in an emerging industry to provide secure data storage for health-care organizations, businesses, government and educational institutions.

As their IT functions grow, more companies are outsourcing their data storage, said Involta CEO Bruce Lehrman.

"At a point in their growth, companies look at what they can build or lease and for how much," he said. "Most come to the conclusion it's better to outsource their data center operations."

Competitive advantage

Brian Hanson, CEO and president of Area Partnership for Economic Expansion, likened having such a center in Duluth to what a railroad meant to a community 100 years ago.

"It's a huge step forward and a competitive advantage for Duluth," Hanson said. "Having a data center in your community means it can handle and manage large amounts of data locally. If a company tried to build that infrastructure itself, it would be extremely expensive and would plain not be as good."

Involta's Duluth center has six employees but could grow to 18, Mistelske said. But while data centers don't have large staffs, their high-technology infrastructure becomes a draw for business and can lead to spinoff jobs, Hanson said.


So far, the Duluth center's client list includes SISU Medical Solutions,

CenturyLink and Enventis, with negotiations going on with several other companies, Mistelske said.

Anchor tenant Essentia Health needed two facilities. So Involta built a $2.3 million satellite center in the former Daugherty Hardware store building in Duluth's Central Hillside. It has been operating since December.

When 80 percent capacity is reached in the main center's two 5,000-square-foot data halls, planning will start on a Phase II, Involta officials say. That expansion will be a connecting building that will be a mirror image of the existing building.

United effort

The city of Duluth, local business and economic development proponents worked together to convince Involta to build a data center. Construction of the LEED silver-certified facility took a year.

Hanson said it's a great example of the local business community bringing ideas to APEX for a business needed in the community.

"We found, from our very first meeting in Duluth, that the community understood our industry and understood what we needed to move forward with the project," Lehrman said. "And they delivered everything we needed to move forward."


An incentives package included tax-increment financing assistance and a Job Opportunity Building Zone, exempting Involta from state income taxes and local property taxes for several years.

"We probably would not be in Duluth if it weren't for the help of APEX, Minnesota Power, Allete, state and local government to bring all those together," Lehrman said. "It probably wouldn't have happened."

But Duluth had something else going for it -- the city's average temperature of 38 degrees.

Any time the temperature is 55 degrees or lower means less use of compressors to cool the heat-generating computer servers a data center houses for clients, Mistelske said.

"Today would be a free cooling day," he said last week when it was 55 degrees. "We figure being in Duluth, about 85 percent of the time is free cooling. That makes Duluth an attraction for corporations looking to be energy-efficient."

And that translates into big savings.

Lehrman estimated 30 percent energy savings by being in Duluth.

Founded in 2004, Involta also has data centers in Marion and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Akron, Ohio. The company plans to build centers in Boise, Idaho, and Tucson, Ariz.

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