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Business
Bloomfield's aspStation carves niche in data storage, Net connections

Thursday, July 26, 2001

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the aging, congested Bloomfield neighborhood, you don't expect a spacious office building, only 11 years old, that was custom designed to handle high-speed computer connections.

But that's exactly what business partners Ed DeHart and Stephen Zelenko found when they were scouting for a site to launch a new data center.

Business partners Ed DeHart, right, and Stephen Zelenko, center, bought a high-tech facility in Bloomfield with the help of real estate developer Barry Lhormer and turned it into aspStation Inc., a provider of data storage space and equipment. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

The structure at 4736 Penn Ave., built in 1990 to house West Penn Hospital's computer systems, is now home to DeHart and Zelenko's company, aspStation Inc.

West Penn sold the high-tech facility when it downsized and eventually merged with Allegheny General Hospital, and it was on the market again in October when DeHart and Zelenko were shopping for a place to start their business. Their company hopes to provide space and equipment at the site to other businesses that need Internet connections and backup data storage.

With financial help from investor Barry Lhormer, DeHart and Zelenko paid $650,000 in October for the three-story buff brick structure. The price included $450,000 for the building and $200,000 for equipment inside, including a generator and a cooling system. DeHart and Zelenko have added wiring, some network equipment and racks -- the 7-foot-tall metal cabinets they lease to customers who need off-site data storage or Internet connections.

Since opening the facility -- which they refer to as a "data hotel" -- aspStation has attracted 15 customers and ordered 10 more racks to accommodate new business.

It charges $995 a month for a rack, but customers can lease half-racks or more than one.

Besides the state-of-the-art equipment inside its walls, aspStation's owners tout its location as ideal for a data center because it is situated between two major fiber optic cable lines: one operated by Verizon along Penn Avenue and one behind the building operated by DQE.

The building also has a conference room and office space available for lease.

DeHart, 49, and Zelenko, 39, aren't strangers to the world of computer connections.

Their first company was Pittsburgh Online, an Internet service provider they sold to Stargate Industries in 1999.

The pair met in the 1970s at the Pittsburgh Area Computer Club, a technical support group for what was then a tiny but growing segment of the population: computer enthusiasts.

Zelenko was still attending Edgewood High School at the time but went on to earn associate degrees in computer technology and physics from Community College of Allegheny County. After a series of jobs in technology and film production, he ended up as a partner with DeHart at Pittsburgh Online. After that business was sold, Zelenko worked at Stargate as a senior engineer and director of telecommunications and facilities.

DeHart, who grew up in the North Hills, earned an associate's degree in electronic technology from CCAC and took courses at the University of Pittsburgh. In the early 1980s, he landed a job at Carnegie Mellon University as a systems programmer and went in 1988 to the Software Engineering Institute, where he co-founded the Computer Emergency Response Team. DeHart stayed at CERT until 1996 when he decided to leave to devote more time to Pittsburgh Online, which he had launched in 1993.

By the time it was sold to Stargate, Pittsburgh Online had 2,000 subscribers.

Though he won't disclose the terms, DeHart said Pittsburgh Online's owners fared well from the deal because they had built the company with a meager investment.

After the sale, DeHart worked as a computer security consultant before deciding to get back to managing a company. When he and Zelenko stumbled on the Bloomfield building, they brought Zelenko's longtime friend, Lhormer, over to inspect it. Lhormer is a Shadyside-based real estate developer and a partner in a venture capital group, Pennsylvania Growth Fund.

After a tour, they retreated to a Starbucks coffeehouse to mull over the possibilities, and Lhormer agreed to invest as an individual. The trio secured capital from National City Bank and may approach Lhormer's investment partners at Pennsylvania Growth and other potential investors "after we get a better handle on what we have," Lhormer said.

Though they're aiming to lease 100 racks within three years, DeHart doesn't expect employment to exceed more than 10.

"By staying small, we can remain very flexible," he said.

Lhormer figures the business will sell itself to potential customers who take a look -- even if it's located in a rather unusual site for a high-tech concern.

"Right now we have to get the word out about the facility. It's not in the sexy Strip District or the South Side. We're in Bloomfield."

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