• U.S.

Ready for Battle

6 minute read
Daniel Eisenberg

The security guards patrolling the lobby of Advanced Internet Technologies (AIT) in Fayetteville, N.C., are the first giveaway. In place of the standard-issue dark suit and tie, they are decked out in military garb, including black caps, fatigues and combat boots, with 9mm Berettas strapped to their side. Getting past them to work is a lot like getting on a plane these days: every employee as well as every visitor has to go through a metal detector and then get searched by a guard using an electronic hand wand.

If the tight security at AIT sounds more MP than M.B.A., there’s a good reason. The private company–which provides Web-hosting services largely through resellers, maintaining 180,000 Web domains for 32,000 clients, including Microsoft–was founded in 1996 by CEO Clarence Briggs, 42, a tightly wound, 13-year veteran of the Army who served in Panama and the Gulf War before a knee injury ended his career. More than 80% of AIT’s 160 employees also have military backgrounds, including a number who joined right after a stint at nearby Fort Bragg. Seven of the eight senior executives have had top-secret security clearances, and the chief of security used to work on Air Force One.

While he has made a smooth transition to the corporate world, Briggs, a brash, combative native of Rhode Island, is still sticking to his guns–literally. “If you come to do damage,” he barks, “expect that damage will be done to you.” Briggs’ concern is more with computer hackers and corporate saboteurs and spies than with terrorists–AIT’s security measures long predate Sept. 11–but for all potential foes, he has applied the same discipline, tactics and training that he learned as a major in the 82nd Airborne Division. New hires have to go through two weeks of AIT’s brand of basic training, and employees wear color-coded badges to denote their rank (black for corporate officers, red for managers, blue for technicians). In an era when security and accountability are foremost in the mind of corporate America, AIT takes both to a whole new level.

Though still a relatively small player in the fiercely competitive Web-hosting business, AIT is faring better than a lot of its bigger, cash-strapped rivals such as Exodus and Digex. Without the help of any venture-capital financing–which Briggs has compared to making a “deal with the devil”–AIT claims to be profitable and says about half its new customers came over from its competitors. One of the fastest growing tech companies over the past five years, AIT should pull in about $30 million in revenue this year, up 50% from 2001.

Nowhere are AIT’s defenses more on display than at its 25,000-sq.-ft. data center, packed with server computers that are the lifeblood of the company. The building is made of reinforced 8-in. concrete cinder blocks, surrounded by sandbags and a 6-ft.-high chain-link, barbed-wire-topped fence. In case anyone should ever penetrate those barriers, AIT keeps an arsenal of weapons, including shotguns, in a storage room nearby. Any security breach triggers a bevy of alarms and a lock-down mode. (So far, the only serious threat has been the possibility of looting during a hurricane.)

When it comes to virtual intruders, AIT doesn’t shy away from battle either. If necessary, Briggs boasts without elaborating, AIT will dispatch a team of private investigators to track down and send a message to the hackers. “I’ve got no qualms about going to the folks that have transgressed,” says Briggs, a balding, broad-shouldered former college wrestler–with the puffy ears to prove it–who has been known on occasion to put a colleague in a headlock in the company gym during competitive early-morning workouts.

Security isn’t the only part of AIT’s business that reflects Briggs’ military background. Around a long conference table, in the shadow of a framed poster showing soldiers crawling through a trench, employees stage mock war games, playing the role of customers and rivals to get a jump on one another. Memos are short and packed with military-like acronyms. “The ipl meeting is set for 1400 hours today,” reads one, referring to a 2 p.m. gathering to discuss the implemental priority list, otherwise known as the budget. For the few employees who haven’t done a tour of duty in the armed forces, it can sometimes be hard to keep up. “I cannot stand the military time. I’m always the one that, when they say 2100 hours, has to ask, ‘What time is that?'” says Michael Roberts, 26, vice president of the hosting division, whose only combat experience is as a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo.

Moving up the corporate ladder can be just as challenging. Briggs likes to rotate employees to increase accountability, but he doesn’t promote anybody without subjecting that person to a grueling interrogation–usually in his office, where commemorative battle plaques decorate the walls and military books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War crowd the bookshelves. Loosely modeled on a military promotion hearing, AIT’s staff reviews can also be intimidating. A three-officer panel (Briggs and two others) grills the candidate for as long as two hours on a range of questions, from the difference between a leader and a manager to the employee’s current reading list. Challenged to defend themselves for major screw-ups, employees tend to sound like grunts on the spot in basic training, delivering succinct, no-nonsense replies like: “Approximately six hours after I performed said action, we were able to reverse it and mitigate downtime.”

In many respects, of course, AIT isn’t much different from countless other companies trying to weather the bursting of the tech bubble. The small collection of abstract modern art that adorns the lobby could have come straight from any corporate decorator’s catalog. Most of the day-to-day conversations would sound more at home in the computer lab than an Army barracks. And like any serious start-up, the company focuses primarily on growth, not combat. AIT is looking into the possibility of providing security consulting services and vulnerability assessments to other companies as well as to the government. Who better to protect Uncle Sam, after all, than Clarence Briggs’ battle-tested soldiers? –Reported by Paul Cuadros/Fayetteville

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com