High fiber: Enseva bringing Hiawatha firms top data speeds

A contractor installs fiber optic cable for Enseva that will cross under I-380 to the west side of Hiawatha. PHOTO ENSEVA


By Dave DeWitte
[email protected]

Businesses in Hiawatha are seeing plenty of utility marker flags – and better high-speed data connections and rates – as local data center operator Enseva cuts out the internet service middle man.

Enseva is more than halfway through a fiber buildout project that is directly connecting area business customers with its Hiawatha data center. Instead of transmitting data over hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable through peering arrangements among multiple internet service providers, the data is traveling over a distance of a few miles over one network, Enseva Chief Technology Officer Chris Sevey said.

Through its own local fiber network, Mr. Sevey said Enseva has been able to offer rates about 50 percent below what some customers were quoted by their internet service providers (ISPs). The network now reaches businesses on the east side of Interstate 380, and installation has recently begun on the west side.

“Depending on how weather treats us, by early spring of next year Enseva will have fiber in the vicinity of all commercial property within Hiawatha city limits and will be on the edge and look at opportunities to drop into Cedar Rapids as well,” Mr. Sevey said.

Enseva had no intention of becoming a communications provider when it opened the data center seven years ago.

“We’re a business that entered the market providing co-location services – real estate where customers bring their own servers,” Mr. Sevey explained. “In the last two years, we’ve seen a massive transition of customers … who are now looking for more of a cloud service provider. Probably 98 percent of our sales these days are cloud-related as opposed to data center sales.”

As Enseva signed up more local clients, it found some of them were discouraged by the high costs their ISPs were charging to connect them to the data center. The company was already Iowa’s largest network distribution hub, Mr. Sevey said, selling bandwidth and network connectivity to businesses. Enseva began exploring the “somewhat shocking” rates local business customers were quoted, he added, and decided “on a whim, really,” to see what it would cost to build a robust local fiber optic network to connect them.

When the prices were presented to four local customers, all of them jumped at the opportunity to connect to the data center through the proposed network. Enseva then realized many more customers could be interested.

“It became very evident that businesses are in the market for better connectivity so that they can better leverage cloud services,” Mr. Sevey said.

Along the way, Enseva engaged some of the existing ISPs in the market to collaborate on a joint solution, without success.

“A VPN tunnel could travel clear [from Hiawatha] to Chicago and back, which degrades connectivity quality,” Mr. Sevey said. “I was trying to encourage the service providers in the area, particularly those in our data center – which are practically all of them – to do a better job of establishing those peers so that if someone’s just going across the street, the data doesn’t have to go to Chicago and back.”

The appeal “fell on deaf ears,” Mr. Sevey said. Not only were the ISPs reluctant to invest, some felt that taking the steps to reduce latency and other issues would eliminate revenue opportunities to provide higher service levels on their own.

Enseva has invested about $500,000 in the local network already. It is being engineered to provide speeds up to 10 Gbps to each address, and to scale upward from there with future investments. It also has enough capacity to “future-proof” it for years to come against increased capacity and data speed requirements from customers.

Mid-day traffic passes through the North Center Point Road intersection on Boyson Road, a main east-west artery through the heart of Hiawatha. PHOTO DAVE DEWITTE

Saying Hiawatha’s businesses can now get the state’s best data connections, Enseva has even proposed that Hiawatha rebrand its growing industrial area east of North Center Point Road as the Hiawatha Tech Park, and promote its connectivity as the best in the state. It’s an area that includes the web services company GoDaddy, ruggedized server manufacturer Crystal Group, contract manufacturer World Class Industries, CCB Packaging and Ready Wireless.

“There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, from a branding perspective, take advantage of that to attract tech companies,” Mr. Sevey said.

The city embraces the concept, Mayor Bill Bennett said, although the branding and marketing may not be a function for the city.

“I know Doug [Sevey, Enseva’s CEO] and Enseva are making a big investment and it’s going to be a great benefit for the businesses of Hiawatha, and the city as a whole,” Mr. Bennett said, adding the city has supported the project from the start.

One possibility the city has discussed with Enseva is the possibility of using the fiber ring to provide internet service to residents at no cost. Mr. Bennett said the city has more work to do to accomplish that goal, “but we are figuring it out.”

The size of Enseva’s Hiawatha data center is modest compared to the massive data centers operated by Microsoft and Amazon in central Iowa, but Mr. Sevey said Enseva is one of the largest providers of cloud services in the Iowa marketplace.

Currently, Enseva offers a cloud platform based on the foundation of Microsoft’s Azure,  which provides a similar type of customer experience. Enseva also has developers working on an open-source Linux-based alternative cloud platform that will be compatible with Amazon Web Services. CBJ