Cheap B.C. hydro power attracting major data centres to the province

Every week Techvibes will be republishing an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1025 – June 16 – 22, 2009.

A new generation of energy-hungry data centres is taking root in B.C.’s Interior as more businesses outsource software duties and hardware to service providers in the Internet “cloud.”

New innovations and technologies are improving data centre efficiency, but some industry veterans and experts say that data centres, which remain major consumers of power, are still far from efficient.

Data centres are often marketed as green alternatives because they consolidate Internet products and infrastructure.

But, according to Brian Fry, vice-president of sales and marketing at Kelowna-based data centre operator RackForce Networks, in many cases their green branding is inaccurate.

Next month RackForce will open an initial 30,000 square feet in a 150,000-square-foot “gigacentre” in Kelowna. IBM Corp. is doing sales and marketing for the new centre.

When the entire facility opens in two-to-three years, it will consume a daily diet of 40 megawatts, which is enough energy to power roughly 40,000 homes.

Nonetheless, Fry said that it will be one of the most efficient facilities of its kind.

“Everybody is going to claim to be green, but I challenge just about any company to be greener than what this facility will be.”

A small number of aging data centres still hum away throughout B.C.

Telus Corp. (TSX:T; NYSE:TU) has run two in Burnaby and Victoria for more than 20 years; the British Columbia Lottery Corp. (BCLC) has operated data centres in Kamloops and Richmond since 1985 and 1988.

Telus wouldn’t disclose how much energy its data centres consume annually.

But a BCLC rep said the annual energy consumption of the Crown corporation’s Kamloops facility is 2.89 million kilowatt hours (KW/h); its Richmond facility consumes 350,000 KW/h.

At $0.055/KW, the BCLC’s energy bill for the two facilities is approximately $180,000 a year.

The power use effectiveness (PUE) at its data centres is 2.2 and 2.0.

Telus’ centres have a similar PUE. The standard data centre efficiency measurement is calculated by dividing a centre’s energy consumption by the consumption of its computer infrastructure.

A PUE of 3.0 is considered, by today’s standards, inefficient, while a PUE of 1.0 is impossibly efficient.

BC Hydro spokeswoman Simi Heer noted that, while new technologies and innovations are reducing the PUE of data centres, newer centres remain heavy energy consumers.

And with data centres being built larger than ever, reducing their PUE has become a major concern for building managers.

Using figures produced in a report to the United States Congress in 2007, BC Hydro estimates that the total server and data centre load in the province is about 800 GW/h a year, based on B.C.’s population.

The provincial government has projected that virtualization and other efficiencies will reduce the power consumption of its planned data centre in Kelowna by approximately 50%.

BC Hydro eliminated 292 servers and saved $61,000 in energy costs in its data centre network last year through server virtualization.

A Telus rep said the company has improved its data centres’ PUE by 10% to 15% by upgrading cooling systems and older servers and virtualizing servers.

The Vancouver-based telecom is one of several organizations drawing up blueprints for new data centres in B.C. cities in the Interior like Kelowna and Kamloops.

The region’s main appeal to data centre operators is the cheap hydro power supplied by the Columbia River and its tributaries.

Not far south of the border, Microsoft Corp., Google and Yahoo Inc. operate data centres near Columbia River-fed dams.

Telus plans to move some of its more energy-hungry web applications – such as billing and managed e-mail services – from its less efficient data centres to its new facility, the location of which has been short-listed but not selected.

Engineers at IBM designed RackForce’s facility to have a PUE of 1.38.

Fry noted that most U.S.-based data centres are powered by coal-fired power plants.

“It makes so much sense to move servers out of those [coal-powered] data centres and into these new cleaner data centres,” he said.

RackForce is compartmentalizing – or boxing – server racks to concentrate and independently control the cooling of each series of racks.

In winter, when the temperature drops, outside air will replace electricity to cool servers.

Fry said RackForce never negotiated an exclusive rate with energy-provider FortisBC, but he added that the company is paying one of the lowest energy rates in North America.

Robert Miggins, vice-president of business development at Peer 1 Network Enterprises Inc. (TSX-V:PIX), said power supply is usually the first consideration when considering data centre expansion.

“It’s not necessarily what it costs to expand square footage,” said Miggins. “Sometime you will run out of power before square footage.”

Vancouver-based Peer 1 opened a data centre in the United Kingdom in April and has announced plans for a new centre in Toronto.

The company is aiming to maintain a sub-2.0 PUE rating at the new facilities.

RackForce has partnered with CANARIE Inc. and the Information Technology Association of Canada to develop best practices for reducing power consumption and the environmental impact of data centres.

Said Fry: “Once it’s measured, we would like to stand up on the soapbox and say, ‘It’s time that our industry got its act together, and this is how you do it.’”