Reality Bytes

It’s a hazy summer day when I tour the former Western Star truck factory in Kelowna with Brian Fry, vice-president of RackForce Gigacenter. As we talk, Fry’s teenaged son and his girlfriend skip down to the other end of the cavernous 150,000-square-foot building, practically disappearing into the horizon. Ghosts of the old factory that once built 31 rigs a day still haunt the place; the signs pointing to emergency power shut-offs remain in place and the assembly lines are still marked in paint on the floor. Since Western Star moved to Portland in 2002, the building has sat as little more than a storage facility for boats and recreational vehicles, and apart from its sheer size there are few hints that this will soon be home to a computing revolution. But that is just what RackForce Networks Inc. and its partner, IBM Canada Ltd., are aiming for. By mid-2009 they plan to transform this old-economy relic into Canada’s largest data centre, the $75-million Gigacenter – filling it, row upon row, with computer server racks, cooling systems and the power systems to run it all.

Most of us don’t think about cyberspace in terms of geography – about an actual place where email folders live, websites are stored or where the reams of data we generate with every transaction ultimately pile up. We click “send” and stuff just flies into the ether. But as the world creates, dishes out and stores information in ever-increasing quantities, the question of where all that data resides has become critically important. IT research firm IDC estimates the world created a total of 281 exabytes – or 281 billion gigabytes – of data in 2007. By 2011 that figure is predicted to reach 1,800 exabytes, with Switzerland’s $6.4-billion Large Hadron Collider (the world’s biggest particle physics project, with 10,000 scientists from 100 countries collaborating to smash subatomic particles against each other at nearly the speed of light) expected to generate a stunning 300 exabytes on its own: more data than can fit on all the hard drives, DVDs and other storage media on the planet.

The most radical part of this information revolution, however, is the shift toward “cloud” computing. Decades ago most computer processing was done on big mainframe computers; as technology improved, machines got smaller, leading to the rise of the PC. Now, as communications technology improves to the point where broadband – and, more recently, wireless broadband networking – is becoming ubiquitous, much of the computing power is migrating back to centralized machines. Software, storage and processing muscle are moving away from desktop computers and into massive server facilities to handle the burgeoning demand for applications such as Google Docs, Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube and Facebook, and storage and sharing sites such as Flickr. YouTube alone streams 1,000 gigabytes of data – enough to fill the biggest hard drive you can buy at your local computer retailer – every second. Business applications sold as “software as a service” are a hot trend too. The proliferation of bandwidth has allowed users to outsource storage and computing power to these web-based companies, helping create a computing universe where users are better connected and yet can be more mobile. We now do many things on a low-powered hand-held device that we couldn’t do just a few years ago on the most powerful desktop PC because our gadgets can harness a galaxy of powerful, networked servers to do the heavy lifting. Applications and data crunching and storage no longer have to live on our devices but are instead scattered across the globe, accessible via networks, hovering in the amorphous “cloud.”

This cloud isn’t weightless, though, hence the worldwide race to build giant bricks-and-mortar “server farms” such as Gigacenter. Traditionally, racks of servers were found in the basement of office towers or in companies’ back closets, but the sheer electrical power these machines consume, and the cooling they require, are driving a migration toward more efficient server farms. “It’s much more efficient for a big operator to run these things,” says Jonathan Koomey, a project scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “These efficiencies can be quite substantial. You’re talking about factors of thousands.”

When it’s up and running, Gigacenter will have the capacity to draw as much as 40 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power more than 40,000 homes. That’s to process and store about 35,000 terabytes of data – a number that could grow as technology improves. Koomey’s research found that worldwide power consumption by computer servers doubled between 2000 and 2005. Data centres in the United States now consume 1.5 per cent of that country’s electricity, according to the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency, or about the same as all the television sets in that country combined; globally, data centres use about one per cent of the world’s electricity. So companies are scouring the planet for the optimal places to build their farms – locations where there is cheap land, few natural disasters and, most critically, bargain rates for power. In this environmentally conscious era, proximity to clean power sources – predominantly hydroelectricity, which is relatively cheap – is key.

Because of the industry’s unique power demands, a new wave of giant server farms is rising in places far from traditional IT hubs – most prominently along the banks of the Columbia River. With some 35 major dams harnessing the 2,000-kilometre-long river and its tributaries in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and B.C., the river is luring colonies of farms on both sides of the border with its promise of green hydro power. Google is building three data centres, 69,000 square feet apiece, in The Dalles, Oregon – only an eight-hour drive south from Kelowna’s Gigacenter. Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Intuit Inc. and other computing titans are turning the tiny fruit-growing town of Quincy, Washington – a five-hour drive south – into perhaps the most powerful computing centre on Earth. Microsoft’s facility alone measures 460,000 square feet, and the company is hoping to expand. Other central Washington towns, such as Moses Lake and Wenatchee, are home to even more server farms, including’s.

Yet the cream of this Columbia River basin crop might just be Kelowna. “It doesn’t get any better than B.C. for having power capacity that is green and low cost,” says Rick Ellery, IBM’s team leader in the province. Ellery, a 40-something man with the wiry features and build of a triathlete, is IBM’s point man for Gigacenter. IBM is using its technical expertise to build the centre and its worldwide connections to bring in larger, enterprise-class clients (they’re hesitant to reveal names, but mention Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers, the world’s biggest industrial auctioneers, as one), while RackForce will handle most of the day-to-day operations.


The partnership between the two companies began when IBM noticed that RackForce was ordering a lot of its servers. Big Blue started talking to RackForce to see what they were about, and soon the idea for Gigacenter was born. IBM realized that the Kelowna area was among the best places on Earth to build a data centre, and certainly among the cheapest on the continent. Indeed, the cheapest electricity rates paid by the heaviest commercial users are less than a nickel per kilowatt hour, similar to rates paid in Washington and less than half what consumers in California or Alberta pay. (Kelowna’s power needs are served by independent producer Fortis BC Inc., with Gigacenter drawing upon BC Hydro’s grid as required.) And while Kelowna shares the benefit of cheap, clean energy with central Washington and Oregon and is similarly low in natural-disaster risks, the city – with a metropolitan population of 107,000, versus Quincy’s 5,700 or The Dalles’ 12,500 – has amenities that make it a preferred location. “One of the things people overlook is, do you have enough hotels and restaurants?” asks Ellery. “Hotels and restaurants house people, feed people during a disaster.”

One of Gigacenter’s main propositions to clients is to get their data, or at least their disaster recovery systems, out of disaster-prone places such as Vancouver and Silicon Valley, where earthquakes are a real possibility; other targeted problem areas include the southeastern U.S. (hurricanes) and the Midwest (tornadoes). Kelowna is not generally in the path of such catastrophes, making it a good place to house critical data. If a major earthquake were to strike Vancouver, for example, companies would be able to switch to their data recovery servers at Gigacenter, set up operations in Kelowna and keep running until the emergency abated. The city’s airport makes it easy for clients to move their operations to town quickly and re-establish business during times of emergency, or to just drop by for more day-to-day needs.

Gigacenter needs those amenities in ways the Googles and the Microsofts of the world do not. Those companies are building server farms to power and house massive amounts of their own software and data. Gigacenter, on the other hand, aims to bring the efficiencies of modern data centres to clients who don’t need their own $100-million server farms. A company such as an insurance firm or web hosting business, for example, might have a few racks of its own servers and pay to have Gigacenter power, host and manage them (collocation, in industry speak). Or a client may just hand over its data and software to be run on Gigacenter’s servers and thus avoid taking on the hardware headaches. Customers would be able to scale up or down their computing requirements with a quick phone call instead of having to buy more equipment. Either way, Gigacenter’s customers are more likely to visit the facility in Kelowna than typical Google users are to physically check their Gmail at an Oregon server farm – only Google technicians would ever need to visit them.

Gigacenter’s empty shell doesn’t yet look like a modern data centre, but RackForce’s existing operations – in the basement of Kelowna’s Landmark Centre – offer some clues as to what’s coming. RackForce will shut down one of its older facilities here (built in 2001), but the most recent operations are state-of-the-art and will keep running after Gigacenter opens. The company currently runs about 2,600 servers for about 2,000 clients – a fraction of the 100,000 servers that will fit in the new Gigacenter. And with IBM bringing in larger clients that might each use 1,000 servers or more, RackForce expects upwards of 4,000 clients in the new facility.

As I tour the Landmark facilities, I’m led into the server room by RackForce’s general manager, Randall Robinson, an energetic man with a neat ponytail and a goatee. Fry and Ellery are with us, but Robinson is clearly in charge of the technical details. A fingerprint scan gets us into the first door. It closes before Robinson can use his swipe card to get us past the second. “It’s a no-tailgate system,” Robinson says. To gain access, an intruder would have to both steal Robinson’s card and cut off his finger.

Once inside, Robinson leads us to a room where rows of servers about the size of DVD players line up, stacked into mesh metal cages about six feet high. “You can feel the heat,” he nearly shouts over the din of unseen fans as a blast of hot air hits me in the face. The chips inside the servers run so hot they could start a computing meltdown if not properly cooled. “Hot servers use three times as much electricity as cool ones,” notes Fry. RackForce employs 180 tonnes’ worth of powerful air conditioners to force cool air up through vents in the floor and through the cages that house their servers. There are two sides to every row of racks: a cold aisle and a hot one, separated by plastic butcher’s sheets. Air chilled to 11 degrees Celsius keeps the cold aisle temperature at 20 degrees Celsius; once the air passes through the racks, its temperature in the other aisle is six degrees higher. Cooling typically sucks up half or more of the electrical power of a typical data centre. It’s a necessary task to keep the servers operational and energy costs under control.

Cooling is one area where the big new data centres have a commanding efficiency advantage over the older ones. You can plan and build into a new server farm the latest cooling technologies to save power, instead of trying to shoehorn gear into a facility, such as the Landmark space, that’s not designed for that purpose. When Gigacenter swings into action, it will have an evaporative cooling plant and the ability to chill the server racks with water, in addition to the hot aisle/cold aisle system RackForce uses now. Six-metre-high ceilings will help draw the hot aisle air away from the machines. And at some point, there may even be a way to take that heated air and utilize it for other purposes. Cold Kelowna winters also work in RackForce’s favour, helping to keep cooling costs down (Iceland is luring server farms for that very reason, as well as for its geothermal energy).

Ultimately, Gigacenter is expected to have a data centre infrastructure efficiency (DCIE) of 73 per cent, meaning almost three-quarters of its energy will be used to power the IT machinery rather than cooling, power protection systems and other infrastructure. According to the Uptime Institute, which provides efficiency certification standards and research for data centres, the typical data centre has a DCIE of only 40 per cent. That efficiency, combined with Kelowna’s cheap, clean power and amenable climate have led promoters to envision a fertile valley of server farms in the Okanagan – a veritable “Silicon Vineyard.” [pagebreak] But can data centres alone transform the region into a bustling hub for the information age? To answer that question, it’s worth a trip south of the border, down the Columbia River. Quincy, Washington, is a sun-scorched, dust-blown town with two main streets, one McDonald’s and no Starbucks. Craggy-faced locals sip their coffee from foam cups at a local gas station. Like the Okanagan Valley a few hours’ drive north, this is an agricultural town, with apple orchards and corn fields just outside the town limits. In the mornings, yellow school buses shuttle mostly Mexican labourers – some legal, some not, a local told me – out of town for their daily toil. The town’s population is now two-thirds Hispanic, according to census data, with taco stands, Mexican restaurants and stores filled with Mexican imports testifying to a well-established Mexican-American community.

There are no rooms in town the night I arrive. I find myself talking to Jim Ren, a retired labourer who has lived in Quincy for a dozen years, most recently in an old motel that’s been converted into cheap apartments. I ask about finding a bed at his motel, Henry’s, but the place no longer serves travellers. Ren’s Australian cattle dog waddles downstairs for a scratch behind her ears, and our conversation turns to the local economy. Farm workers – the agricultural kind – fill many of the motel rooms in town. The rest are often booked by contractors for the server farms. “They bring in their own people,” Ren says of Microsoft, Yahoo and Intuit. Teams of electricians come into town for weeks at a time to service the giants. “It doesn’t do anything for the workers here.” When Microsoft announced its plans for Quincy in 2006, many people had high hopes that their town would soon be flooded with hot jobs and fresh money. Dozens of homes, priced as high as $400,000, sprang up in new subdivisions. Many of them, Ren says, sit unfinished and unsold. I consider finding and bedding down in one of them, but end up sleeping in the back of my Kia.

The next day, I drive past Yahoo’s farm, and then Microsoft’s. Yahoo’s building is painted a playful Barney-the-dinosaur purple. There’s a sign proclaiming the site the Future Home of Yahoo!, but the word “future” is crossed out. Microsoft’s 460,000-square-foot building, on the other hand, is a foreboding bunker, with gated security keeping unwanted visitors hundreds of metres away. But both facilities look like they’ve never opened. There are three vehicles in Yahoo’s parking lot and none visible at Microsoft’s. Despite the server farm’s giant size, Microsoft only employs 40 people in Quincy, according to the Los Angeles Times. Yahoo employs about 50. Business in town is slow, says Guadalupe Garcez, a real estate agent at Paradise Flats, a comfortable but modest new subdivision near the Microsoft and Yahoo farms with homes going for between $130,000 and $200,000. “To tell you the truth, we haven’t had anyone from Microsoft or Yahoo come here.”

This is the cautionary note from Quincy to Kelowna: don’t expect a high-tech job boom from data centres. Indeed, RackForce indicates Gigacenter will employ about 100 people – a fraction of the 1,500 who once filled the Western Star truck factory. The main beneficiaries of this new economy industry are data centre owners and their clients – and, if IBM’s Ellery is to be believed, the world. “The dramatic reduction in power for B.C.-based enterprises, if they were to move from their existing data centres into Gigacenters” – IBM envisions more Gigacenters to be built – “is huge,” he says. “It’s one of the biggest cornerstones of the electrical strategy for businesses in the province.” The B.C. government has told BC Hydro to meet half of its new electricity needs with conservation by 2020. Gigacenter clients should be able to cut their electricity consumption in half for the same computing horsepower.

The question is whether greater efficiency will just spur more demand. After all, the two constants of computing have been that it continually grows cheaper and more powerful, and as a result usage continues to expand. Data monsters such as YouTube – which used more bandwidth in 2007 than the whole Internet did in 2000 – and the Large Hadron Collider would never exist if computing technology stayed where it was just years ago. Koomey, the computing efficiency scientist, argues that many computer activities, such as the downloading of songs, cut down on inefficient, carbon-spewing practices such as driving to the record store. Still, “demand has been increasing rapidly,” he concedes, in a scientist’s reserved fashion. “Does that swamp the efficiency effect? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if anyone does.”

Ultimately, it’s likely inevitable that the desire for computing power, and thus electrical power, will continue to soar. The only hope for saving the planet from pollution pumped out from cyberspace lies in greater efficiency. If that’s the case, keep your eyes on Kelowna. The clouds are coming.