From Site Selection magazine, September 2006

Energizing the Internet

Photos courtesy of Equinix
As data centers consume larger amounts of power, they turn to low-cost utility locations far removed from major cities.


hen both Yahoo and Microsoft announced this summer that they would build huge new Internet data centers in rural Quincy, Wash., every electric utility in North America took notice.
   The rules for data center site selection had officially changed, and new rule No. 1 was simple: Locate in a town where electric power is both cheap and abundant.
   Rural Central Washington certainly fits the bill. On August 8, Seattle- based Sabey Corp. announced that it plans to build a 100,000- sq.- ft. (9,290- sq.- m.), state- of- the- art data center in Douglas County, just north of the Grant County sites selected by Yahoo and Microsoft.
   The center, tentatively named "Intergate.Columbia," will cost US$100 million to build and is slated for completion by early 2008. The facility will purchase its power from the Douglas County Public Utility District. The new data center could use up to 30 megawatts of electricity.
   "Douglas County PUD was very helpful throughout this process and will be instrumental in the success of this project," said John Sabey, senior vice president of real estate for Sabey Corp.
   Sabey cited low power rates and competitive land costs as two of the key factors in swaying the company to locate in Douglas County. "We see North Central Washington as a very logical extension of our data center business," he said.
   Sabey Corp. has built and operates some of the largest data centers in the U.S., including Seattle's 76- acre (31- hectare) Intergate technology campus.
   In Douglas County, the company is exploring the potential to install an advanced thermal recovery system that would capture some of the heat generated by the data center's computers for reuse. Dealing with heat, in fact, is the major source of power consumption for North America's 10,000 or more data centers.
   "Computers are, for the most part, toaster ovens," said Janice Fetzer, then managing director of data center operator Equinix, during a presentation before the Utility Economic Development Association in Reno, Nev., in July. "The servers inside a typical data center produce tremendous amounts of heat." Equinix is a Foster City, Calif.- based company that operates 17 major data centers in 11 key markets in the U.S. and Asia- Pacific region.
   While computers need electricity to operate, they need even more electricity to remain cool. According to Peter Gross, CEO of EYP Mission Critical Facilities Inc. in Manhattan, 50 percent of a data center's monthly energy bill goes toward air conditioning.
   A typical Web search on Yahoo activates roughly 7,000 or more computers, eating up chunks of electricity at a time – electricity
needed to both power the search and to cool the thousands of servers doing the searching.
   Some Internet companies now spend $50 million a year on electric power, and the total U.S. electric bill for keeping the Internet "live" has been estimated at $3.3 billion a year.
   Even though the microprocessors inside the servers are becoming more efficient, the data centers themselves are becoming more power- hungry. "Typical loads for data centers today are 20 to 30 megawatts," Fetzer said. "Some can be in excess of 50 megawatts."
   Due to this rapidly increasing demand for electric power, the larger data center operators are choosing to locate their facilities in remote towns where electricity is both plentiful and relatively inexpensive.
   In Quincy, Wash., for example, power costs only 1.89 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to more than 15 cents per kilowatt hour in Silicon Valley or Manhattan. Nearby dams keep the Quincy area readily stocked in an abundant supply of hydroelectric power.
   Fetzer said the cost to build new data centers will only continue to rise.
   "Demand for space in data centers is up 67 percent this year, but the supply is up only 6 percent," she said. "High power requirements have escalated utilization and inventory depletion."
   The result, she added, is that major players such as Google are now turning to rural markets and second- and third- tier cities when they have to build new data centers. New hot markets for these centers are Quincy, Wash.; The Dalles, Oregon; Manassas, Va.; and tier- two cities in Canada, Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska and Georgia.
   "Communities anticipating Internet business growth need to accelerate time frames with permitting and power capacity," noted Fetzer. "In the next six to 12 months, data centers will need large- capacity electrical circuits, lower rates due to volume and load factor, partners and consortiums to engineer new solutions, and green solutions."
   Without those innovative solutions, she said, the growth of the Internet could slow. "It became apparent in the late 1990s that data centers were becoming power hogs. This has always been an issue since the early days of the Internet."
   What's changed is that the electric bill for powering the Internet has now come due.


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