Enter the Matrix: High-Tech, High-Rise Data Farm Puts Down Roots in Lower Manhattan

But does it compute?

Dave Sabey

Perhaps in the future, silver-legged secretaries will answer the phones, stainless-steel fingers will clack away at keyboards, and Manhattan’s workforce will have been completely supplanted by robotic counterparts who work faster, smarter, longer and cheaper than their human predecessors.

For now, though, most buildings are still stocked with actual flesh-and-blood employees who take long breaks, complain and sometimes confuse their assigned tasks with internet shopping.

The property at 375 Pearl Street, a towering skyscraper in Lower Manhattan at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, won’t be one of them. After buying the building out of foreclosure last year, its developer is taking a brave leap into the future.

The building is being overhauled. Soon it will be a giant data center, with an internal, artificial climate that is cool and dry, suited not for humans but machines. Power lines will serve up 40-megawatt loads for its fleet of servers.

“This will be the largest high-rise data center in the world,” Dave Sabey, the founder and chief executive of Sabey Corporation, which owns the building and is overseeing its conversion, told The Observer during a recent interview high in the 32-story tower. “This is the most complicated center of its kind in the world.”

As Manhattan has blossomed into an unlikely tech hub—drawing companies and institutions such as Google and Cornell’s planned applied-sciences school—375 Pearl Street is poised to be a key piece of infrastructure, essentially a 550-foot-tall supercomputer with vast numbers-crunching and storage capabilities, the most powerful data center of its kind.

But like any fable of humankind’s progress, the story of 375 Pearl Street’s development has a dark side. On September 22, The New York Times dropped a bomb on the data-farming industry—a Page One story on the sector’s profligate energy usage. The article painted a damning picture of data centers flagrantly burning through power to keep machines idling in case of a surge in online activity, zombie servers just gobbling electricity, and backup diesel generators keeping the whole thing running in case of a power blip while belching noxious fumes.

Mr. Sabey both defended the sector and distanced himself from his competitors. “They’re very good stewards,” he said. “The notion that any of us are not worried or don’t care about energy consumption, it’s the highest item. We are all over it.”

His company, he added, has located nearly half of its data facilities, nearly 2-million-square-feet’s worth, in Quincey, Washington, an area powered by hydroelectric dams on the nearby Columbia River.

Enter the Matrix: High-Tech, High-Rise Data Farm Puts Down Roots in Lower Manhattan