Seven Questions for Tech Guru Jefferson Brown

The head of an important local data center on our budding tech economy, overcoming the Vegas stereotype and how McCarran could be the key to our tech future

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

Before coming to Las Vegas, Jefferson Brown spent more than 20 years in the technology industry with some of the giants of the colocation business, such as Equinix. Now serving as president of Cobalt Data Centers, a server hub near Summerlin, he’s among the key contributors to a new age in the Valley’s tech sector.

Why are data centers important?

They’re the other end of everything you have in your hand. These smartphones and all these apps, email—[we are told] all of that exists on “the cloud.” But it truthfully resides physically in a data center. As the world has become more dependent upon technology, these data centers have grown and grown and grown. It is a shining spot in the overall global economy to be in the data-center world. Cobalt is one of probably 10 major data-center facilities in the Southern Nevada market.

Why is Nevada an ideal hub for data centers?

Rather than placing critical infrastructure in Silicon Valley, which has expensive real estate, expensive power and is very close to all those big companies like Facebook and Disney, let’s get that into a [more economic friendly] environment where there is low risk of natural disasters like earthquakes. We have a little marketing slogan: “Get your critical infrastructure off the fault line once and for all.” Bring it out of California, but you don’t have to go all the way to Dallas.

How many companies use Cobalt’s services?

Many dozens—that’s about [all] I’d share with you on that. We are a new business. This is our flagship original data center. We have intentions of growing here in Southern Nevada as well as into new markets.

Cobalt was formed about a little over three years ago. In our line of business it takes quite a bit of time to raise capital, select a site, and build and condition the facilities.

Markets like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Phoenix have become attractive for placing critical infrastructure to go serve that big economy in California. Of the companies in our data center now, we are probably today maybe 50 percent Nevada-based organizations and 50 percent other.

You were from Silicon Valley before heading to Las Vegas. How does Southern Nevada’s tech community compare with places such as the Bay Area; Boulder, Colorado; and Austin, Texas?

It’s been a topic I’ve been questioned about: “Is Las Vegas the next Silicon Valley?” Sometimes the reputation of Las Vegas, whatever that is, is a bit of an obstacle with organizations choosing to come here or do business here, and that’s been the case for a long, long time. I definitely get a sense that if we are competing for business, for example, and the customer looks to Phoenix or Las Vegas, sometimes they would pick Phoenix. At the core of that might just be their perception of Las Vegas.

Can you see a day when Las Vegas’ reputation is no longer an obstacle?

The reputation of Las Vegas has been around a long time. It will always be somewhat different. There’s strength in being unique, but on occasion we wrestle with our uniqueness. Growing industries like technology and others that move away from gaming can help accelerate that.

Do you feel like Las Vegas will be known for any kind of particular brand of tech compared with other cities?

There are some very innovative things taking place to ensure that the online gaming environment follows the many rules that the Nevada Gaming Control Board has set up. With geo-location, if you are an online poker player, you now have the ability to place real bets from your smartphone. And as you’re driving from home to Los Angeles, as soon as you cross the state line [into California], that ability has to go away.

Imagine the technology that’s got to be in place to say, “You just stepped outside the state lines of Nevada, and as a result you’re no longer able to place that bet, game over.” As online gaming [expands] in other major gaming markets around the world, Nevada is going to be seen as the leader, as the most innovative environment for bringing high technology to that industry.

Nevada’s public education system is poorly ranked and underfunded. Do you think that is another obstacle to drawing big business?

I have no doubt in my mind. Southern Nevada’s education really struggles, and that translates into difficulties when trying to get businesses to relocate.
I have resided in the Bay Area for the last almost 11 years and continue to do so. I’ve got three children, two of whom are still in high school. In my situation, my kids would’ve been angry if we took them out of high school [and away from] their friends, but had they been younger, I would definitely have to question if moving here would be good for my family.

What does Las Vegas offer the tech community that it is currently not marketing?

The first thing that comes to mind is accessibility. We can get direct flights into Las Vegas at all times of the day. I think there’s a flight a day from Seoul and a couple of flights a day from London. That doesn’t happen in Phoenix. So if something isn’t working right, our customers need immediate access, and sometimes that means putting somebody on a plane.

I also think of it from the digital side. In the last 10 or so years, the carriers—the telecommunication providers—have really invested significantly into Southern Nevada. And now digital access is robust enough that you may not have to be on a plane to fix a problem. You might be sitting in Silicon Valley and be able to manipulate your environment remotely. In the technology sector, that’s a big deal.

Long before you landed in the tech world, you were a disc jockey in college. Any favorite jams you just have to play?

I did my undergrad at the University of Chicago, and an upperclassman said, “Hey, do you want to tag along with us and go see this cool band that’s playing up at this high school?” So we go to a high school gymnasium and listen to R.E.M. before they became big. [Since then], I’ve always had a soft spot for them in my heart.

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