What Are Data Centers?

By Greg BryanFeb 22, 2024


We're back at it with episode three of our five-part podcast special that explains the nuts and bolts of the internet.

You've come to the right place if you're looking to understand how all of those cat videos travel from the source to your phone. 

We explained in episode two how the internet is made of transport networks to carry data over (mostly) fiber optic wires distributed around the world. And in the episode before that, we discussed how the internet is a network of networks operated by thousands of mostly private companies.

But we haven’t yet covered exactly how and where those networks meet and exchange traffic with each other and access their destinations.

So today, it's data center time.

What Are Data Centers?

Long ago, in the before-times—before the cloud and neutral data centers—there were carrier colocation centers. This history goes back to the early days of what we commonly refer to as the internet now.

As the legend goes, back in 1992, several network providers in northern Virginia got together over beers and agreed to connect their networks to exchange traffic much like how the federal government had already done.

The result was the legendary MAE-East, one of the reasons NoVA is still a key internet exchange and data center hub. This concept spread rapidly and spawned an entire industry of colocation sites where carriers could meet, set up a point of presence (PoP), and exchange traffic with each other.

One of the earliest entries to this new market was the company Equinix, founded in 1998, which is still the most ubiquitous provider of colocation and data center space by a large margin. This company helped spur the change from carrier interconnection to carrier-neutral access in the data center.

Going back to MAE-East and others, the original idea was to provide a place with power and security for networks to meet and exchange traffic. The purpose of these locations shifted as cloud computing began to take off in the 2000s and 2010s.

While we still have colocation sites, network access points (NAPs), and carrier hotels that exist to facilitate traffic exchange, with the rapid uptake of cloud services in the past decade, we now talk mostly about data centers.

Luckily, Senior Research Manager Jon Hjembo was on hand to help me work through data center types, their defining features, and what happens inside these facilities. We talk about who owns these structures and how their geography informs the way the internet works.

You can listen to this latest explainer below and get ready for next week's episode, which dares to ask: What is the cloud?

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From This Episode:

Greg Bryan

Greg Bryan

Greg is Senior Manager, Enterprise Research at TeleGeography. He's spent the last decade and a half at TeleGeography developing many of our pricing products and reports about enterprise networks. He is a frequent speaker at conferences about corporate wide area networks and enterprise telecom services. He also hosts our podcast, TeleGeography Explains the Internet.

Connect with Greg  

Jon Hjembo

Jon Hjembo

Senior Research Manager Jonathan Hjembo joined TeleGeography in 2009 and heads the company’s data center research, tracking capacity development and pricing trends in key global markets. He also specializes in research on international transport and internet infrastructure development, with a particular focus on Eastern Europe, and he maintains the dataset for TeleGeography’s website,

Connect with Jon