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Web hoster takes security to extremes

At AIT headquarters, you'll find barbwire fences, blackened windows and a full munitions closet. Execs there, most of them military-bred, say that culture is the key to success.

Web-hosting company Advanced Internet Technologies is big on security.

Not necessarily the firewall, virtual private network, virus detection type of thing. More like the barbwire, munitions closet and paratrooper type of security.

The Fayetteville, N.C.-based company has razor-wire fences, windows painted black in some areas, and even a munitions closet with 12-gauge shotguns and 9-millimeter Beretta pistols. Its data centers are protected by 8-inch reinforced concrete and 24-hour guards. And those precautions were taken before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Unless we put in anti-aircraft missiles, there's not a lot more we can do," said AIT CEO Clarence Briggs. "We don't screw around with security."

Other Web-hosting companies have increased physical security, installing bulletproof glass, posting guards and the like, but most tend to stop at standard security measures such as limiting access to authorized employees. None seems to have gone as far as AIT, analysts said.

"This company is doing a lot more than others when it comes to security," said Meena Almaula, a Web-hosting analyst at IDC.

At Atlanta-based Interland, which has physical security for its servers and data centers, a representative said the Web-hosting company considers its biggest threat to be hackers. AIT, of course, makes use of security software to fend off enemies of that stripe.

Other defenses at Interland include palm-scanning biometric systems, guards and video monitoring. Competitor Exodus Communications says it uses video surveillance, security alarms and motion sensors.

Where every day is Veterans Day
For AIT, physical security measures are used to deter trespassers, but mostly to foster a military culture where employees "like their guns and meat," a company representative quipped.

In fact, 85 percent of AIT's staff has military experience, with many serving at Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, just outside AIT's headquarters. To most of AIT's military-bred employees, Briggs' security measures may make the company almost feel homey.

Privately held AIT has three subsidiaries that provide Web hosting, training for information technology professionals, and Internet Protocol network services. It has 180,000 customers spread across the globe.

The company is profitable, Briggs said, and is ranked No. 28 in Deloitte & Touche's 2001 Technology Fast 500, which recognizes the fastest-growing technology companies in North America and their contributions. In its home state, AIT is the second fastest-growing technology company with a five-year growth rate of 22,241 percent, ahead of better-known Red Hat and RF Micro Devices.

In February, AIT plans to launch voice and data services over its Internet Protocol network. When the network is complete, AIT will have a metropolitan network built around Fayetteville that it will use to market business and residential phone service and eventually video services.

Although AIT's expansion into voice and data over IP services may seem a bit of a leap from its core Web-hosting and training businesses, Briggs seems confident it will pay off.

"We've spent the money, thrown our shoulder into it, and are putting it up," he said.

Executives at AIT say one of the keys to AIT's success is its culture, which revolves around military titles and structure. AIT is a place where tech buzzwords such as Java and C++ meet military terms such as "forward operator," jargon for an information gatekeeper on the front lines.

The privately held company expects about $30 million in revenue for 2001, while other Web-hosting companies such as Exodus Communications have struggled.

As far as tackling the tech sector in tough economic times, Briggs, 41, and his company aren't fazed. "In our previous lives we've all done things significantly more difficult than this," he said. "We can get in the weeds and make it happen."

Battle tested
If Briggs sounds like a military man that's because he served in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division and is a veteran of Desert Storm. He also lists freestyle wrestling as a hobby, has security clearance with the military, and dabbles in Mandarin Chinese.

Briggs cuts to the chase pretty quickly, and there's a good reason for that: While many tech executives have only engaged in a war of words, AIT's head honchos have actually been to war.

AIT's operating chief served in two wars and helped modernize the armed forces of the Philippines. The CFO was an aero scout in the 82nd Airborne and has more than 500 hours of flight time.

The company's chief of staff is fluent in Polish and holds a top-secret security clearance with the U.S. government. And he's not alone. Other execs at AIT are also battle-tested (literally) and well-versed in just about everything imaginable, ranging from tae kwon do to underwater search and rescue.

"The military is very bad at a few things, but it has the proper methodology down cold," said Sean McCoy, owner of Netrophia.com, a Brunswick, Ga., Web-design company and an AIT customer. McCoy said AIT's approach to business is familiar because it's based on military practices.

"It's easy to understand the chain of command," said McCoy, who served in the Army. Other customers contacted by CNET News.com also said that AIT's military-like style and operating methods are a plus for the company.

Ken Marcus, owner of Precision Web Hosting in Vista, Calif., said that AIT's enhanced security may not be necessary, but he finds it apropos for a group of former military men. "It definitely fits with their culture," Marcus said.

McCoy, who describes AIT's complex as a large facility with no "elaborate furnishings," said AIT brings back a lot of military memories. "There's a war room and a lot of military jargon being thrown around," he said. "They've taken the coolest part of the military and integrated it into their business."

Briggs admits that some customers are taken aback by the metal detectors and other security precautions, but they come around pretty quickly. "They realize that we don't screw around with their data."