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MAIDEN, N.C. -- If you pull off of U.S. 321 and turn south on to Startown Road, out there, in the middle of a field, behind some transplanted trees and a man-made berm, across from fallow farm fields ringed by barbed wire fences, is a big white building which, if everything goes according to plan, will make your PC disappear. You can t even see the thing from the road. Guards stand sentry over two entrances, although the real way into this place is through your iPad, iPhone or iPod.

This is Apple s brand spanking new data center, rising up from the gentle grass and rustling leaves near Maiden, N.C.. It is the thing behind the next big thing, the new computing revolution announced Monday morning by turtlenecked Apple CEO Steve Jobs on a stage in San Francisco. If you think we re not serious, he said, revealing a giant projected picture of the Maiden data center, you re wrong.

The iCloud, which is coming in the fall, is supposed to rid you of the burden of hard drive, and allow you to access your music, contacts, calendar, software, pictures, apps and files from any sort of Apple device, anywhere. The iCloud is billed as this ethereal realm where you can reach up and grab the perfect picture and the perfect song and bring it down to earth whenever the mood strikes. In reality, the cloud is firmly anchored to the ground, with humming stacks of servers connected with tangles of cable and whirring fans which keep everything cool enough to work. This is not iHeaven. This is Maiden.

There are others. Up the road in Lenoir, Google opened a data center to handle the daily din of Internet searches, and down the road in Rutherford County, Facebook is building a server farm to make status updates speedier. Apple has two other data centers, but the Maiden facility is among the largest in the country. In essence, the the next Autobahn of cloud computing is being built in the North Carolina foothills. It s a whole new world out there, says Scott Millar, president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corporation. We re trying to get a piece of that.

But why Maiden? The town is far from the Silicon Valley. The closest WiFi hotspot to the Apple farm is up the road a little ways at the Country Market Grill, just off of Startown Road. Maiden itself is home to fewer than 4,000 people. Of them, nearly 9% live below the poverty line. It sits in the once mighty Unifour, the great textile and furniture-making colossus that withered away and left thousands of people out of work.

So again, why here? Millar says the area was already wired for heavy industry. The electricity is cheap and strong. High tension wires cross the back of Apple s property. The data center plugs right in.

Duke Energy, for one, welcomes our new Apple overlords. Executives gushed about it in a release shortly after the company announced it was coming to Catawba County. The great thing about a data center is that they run full‐out, 24‐7, with no shifts and no seasonality, said Clark Gillespy, vice president of Economic Development, Business Development and Territorial Strategies for Duke Energy Carolinas. It's the type of customer where the meter spins and spins at an exponential pace. It may be the most ideal customer we could have.

We fully expect Apple to be one of our top ten customers in the Carolinas, said Stu Heishman, Duke's director of Business Development. Duke also lobbied to get the Google and Facebook server farms, and supplies power to them both.

How much power would the data center use? Duke won t say. According to an April report from Greenpeace, the place has the potential to suck down 100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power roughly 80,000 homes (Millar is skeptical. That s crazy, he says). Greenpeace isn t happy. As they point out, much of that power is generated by coal and nuclear fission. Jobs says the the Maiden facility is as eco-friendly as you can make a modern data center, although he didn t elaborate. Calls to Apple were not returned.

(Greenpeace based its estimate on the size and cost of the facility. By comparison, Google said in terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search in 2009 was the equivalent of about 0.2 grams of carbon dioxide.)

The electricity is relatively cheap. The latest numbers from the Energy Information Administration show North Carolina ranks 16th when it comes to the lowest power prices (an average of 5.83 cents per kilowatt-hour in February for industrial customers, if you must know). Duke Energy says its rates are even lower, but still says it stands to make tens of millions of dollars each year from Apple s power bills alone.

It took more than electrical power to get the center here. State and local leaders gave Apple a ten year deal that cut its real estate taxes in half and slashed personal property taxes by 85%. This will create a total of 50 permanent jobs at the center. It simply does not take a small army of people to run a legion of servers.

Apple owns about 200 acres of land off of Startown Road. Right now, it s only using about 500,000 square feet to help sync pictures, music and more to devices across the world. But when it comes to the cloud, as long as there s enough power flowing in Maiden, the sky s the limit. It s a large place and it s full of expensive stuff, said Jobs, pacing in front of pictures of servers. We re pretty proud of it.

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