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The Cosmos, Robot Dogs And Ponzi Schemes: Data Centers Had A Huge 2021 — But It Got Really Weird, Too

A handful of headlines throughout 2021 made even seasoned data center veterans do a double-take. 


Billion-dollar deals or millions of square feet in new development?

Not exactly.

With robotic guard dogs patrolling server rack and former data centers disguised as mansions marketed as safe-houses — and with data centers planned for the moon and being discovered illegally operating out of former NATO bunkers — 2021 saw a parade of data center stories that ranged from whimsical to truly bizarre.

Here are the strangest data center stories from the past year:

Disguised as a "McMansion," a data center appears on Zillow as “the ultimate safe-house” 

With its stately, columned entranceway, soaring chimney and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a leafy front yard, the building on Southview Lane in Dallas appears to be a large, if somewhat austere, single-family home — similar to the many others that dot the neighborhood. In fact, it is a data center

The discrete 5K SF facility served as an SBC and AT&T data center from 2000 until its decommissioning in 2012. Its misleading appearance was apparently a security measure, according to reports. 

So how do you sell a small, outdated data center disguised as a suburban home?

According to a listing that appeared on Zillow in April, you market it to individuals willing to spend almost $1M on “the ultimate safe house” — those for whom the building’s security features supersede its lack of bedrooms or a kitchen. For those with fewer mortal enemies, the listing suggests the property is also suitable for storing wine or antique cars. 

“With walls, flooring, and ceiling made of concrete, this property can serve as the perfect storage spot for large wine collections, art collections, multiple cars, as well as serving as the ultimate safe house,” read the Zillow listing, posted by Felder Property Group.

“The building is connected to two electrical grids and also features a natural gas generator that has is powered by two diesel fuel tanks in the event of a natural gas failure, making the chance of power loss very rare. With office space as well as warehouse space and large outdoor area, there are many ways this property can be utilized.”

Data center for criminals in former NATO bunker leads to eight convictions

Eight men convicted on criminal conspiracy charges in Germany earlier this month may have been the target market for the Dallas data center turned safe-house — they were operating a so-called “bulletproof” data center hosting online criminal enterprises out of a former NATO bunker. 

Built into a cold war era underground facility constructed by the West German defense forces, the illicit data center hosted dark web domains used for everything from narcotics trafficking to identity theft until a raid by German police in 2019.

A major cyberattack on German telecommunication companies in 2016 is also thought to have originated at this data center.   

A data center-themed Ponzi scheme

Profit Connect Wealth Services told clients that the company’s two data centers constituted a securities trading supercomputer that could guarantee returns of more than 20%. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Las Vegas-based company was a Ponzi scheme that bilked at least $12M from nearly 300 different investors. 

In July, the SEC froze the firm’s assets, accusing Joy and Brent Kovar, the mother-son team behind Profit Connect, of scamming investors. According to the SEC, there are no data centers and no supercomputer — the company’s capital and payouts all came from investors, with millions transferred in the Kovars’ personal bank accounts.

Robotic guard dogs start patrolling data centers

The Novva Data Center campus, a 100-acre facility in West Jordan, Utah, is using robotic dogs to perform monitoring and security tasks. The autonomous dogs, known as WIRE, are modified versions of Boston Dynamics' well-known robotic dogs modified for data center applications by engineers at nearby Brigham Young University. 

Equipped with advanced LIDAR, facial recognition technology and an array of infrared sensors, the robots work in conjunction with autonomous drones to monitor access to buildings and check the temperature of machines across the campus. Wes Swenson, CEO of Novva Data Centers, told Utah Business that these are difficult tasks for humans to perform well due to the massive size of hyperscale data centers.

“The scale that’s required today is quite different from what it was even a decade ago,” Swenson said. “When you do a 100-acre campus like we’re doing in West Jordan, it’s a lot of territory to cover from a physical security and authorization standpoint.” 

Data centers on the moon? Data centers on the moon — for real 

The European Space Agency is looking at building a data center on the moon, part of an international effort to establish a permanent settlement on the lunar surface.

In May, the ESA contracted Italian aerospace firm Thales Alenia to study the feasibility of establishing a lunar data center in the next decade. ESA’s so-called Moonlight Initiative, along with NASA’s Artemis mission, aims to build lunar infrastructure as both a test run for Mars and as a tool to stimulate space commercialization. The building blocks of a future telecommunications network around the moon — such as a GPS-like lunar navigation system and space-based 4G nodes — are in the works.

These projects envision permanent science colonies on the lunar surface — with laboratories for experiments and base camps for lunar exploration using drones and autonomous vehicles. Remote computing power and data storage are key elements of these plans, but terrestrial data centers are of limited utility for many applications. It takes information about 1.5 seconds to travel from the moon to Earth. That kind of latency is a nonstarter when the computing is being used for tasks like helping an astronaut fly a drone over the moon’s surface. 

“We see this as significantly reducing the cost and complexity of subsequent individual expeditions,” said Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, speaking to media following the project’s announcement.

“It will be a base for future exploration and economic activity of the sort that we can only begin imagining today and starting to put that infrastructure in place is essential.”

CORRECTION, DEC. 13, 9:15 P.M. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly named General Dynamics as the manufacturer of the autonomous dogs at Novva's Utah data center. They are made by Boston Dynamics. The story has been updated.