Hydro power, and a BC Hydro program, turning data centres green

Rackforce introduces its GigaCenter to the media, the first step towards making the Kelowna data centre the largest in Canada.

Mary Frances Hill

Do a Google search, upload a photograph, or send a short email. We do these things automatically at home or work every day, but how often do we consider the energy costs?

The hardware that makes possible the simplest internet tasks, including servers and the huge data centres that house them, are the growth engine of  information and communications technology (ICT). And the amount of energy these servers demand – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year – is a huge challenge facing this growing industry.

"The ICT industry is a horrible mess and most people don't understand [the energy needs] behind it," says Brian Fry, sales and marketing manager of  Rackforce, which is planning to expand its Kelowna, B.C. 'GigaCenter" into Canada's largest data centre.  "A lot of people think, 'if I use computer program instead of flying out to meetings I'll  teleconference the meeting and save the environment.'

"But they haven't calculated what their service provider is doing behind the scenes to make sure they're not having a heavy impact on the environment."

Bigger is better, but efficient is best

Rackforce, which began by charging $60 a month for data services in 2002, now counts technology leader IBM as its biggest client. And to meet demand, RackForce has just opened an initial 30,000 square feet in what is planned to be a 150,000-square-foot  "GigaCenter" in Kelowna.

When the entire facility opens in two years, it will consume enough energy to power roughly 40,000 homes daily.

That's a lot of power, but Rackforce now claims the most efficient use of power among data centres in B.C. They're currently using their space to serve more than 2,400 business and individual clients, and they've chosen Kelowna in large part due to the availability of power produced not by coal – as is the case in so many other places – but by water. Here's what Rackforce has to say on their website:

"All of RackForce's datacenters are powered by hydro-electric energy, from the Columbia River, provided by two separate providers (BC Hydro and Fortis) via two separate grids for power redundancy. Diesel generators are used only as backup power sources in the unlikely event of a power interruption from both suppliers."

As B.C. grows, so does data centre load

In 2007, BC Hydro estimated that the total server and data centre load in the province was about 800 GW/h a year, based on B.C.'s population. And the forecast was for an annual growth rate of 14%.

That's the reason BC Hydro is offering businesses juicy financial incentives and tools under the Power Smart Partner Program's Data Centre and Server Initiative. And it's why Rackforce is planning to expand its Kelowna facility to 150,000 square feet. 

"With business taking off it requires a much larger capacity than we've ever had before," says Fry. "The business we're in is so necessary, but the other part that's happening is that if you're not big enough, you become inefficient.

"About 70% of data centres run on coal-fired generation, and that's our biggest contributor to greenhouse gas," he says.

 In B.C., Rackforce is avoiding using "dirty" power in favour of hydroelectric power, which also comes at a cost among the lowest for electricity in North America.

"In our business, power is typically our single largest cost, and in B.C. it's quite affordable," he says.

Data centres thrive on efficiency

Conserving energy is important to all businesses, but it's doubly important to data centres.

"Unlike many industries that can't move quickly, our industry is going through a revolution," says Fry. He says that Rackforce moves quickly to  conserve energy by upgrading inexpensive fibre-optic cables and using the gifts of Mother Nature.

According to a recent Wired magazine article, chilly Iceland is the ideal home for data centres. There, the cooling advantage is obvious, and  geothermal and hydroelectric power keep electricity costs down.

Here in Canada, Kelowna seems to be the ideal home for the industry, in part because it's seismically sound and not prone to flooding or extreme weather. And so far, the wildfires of 2009 have not approached the Gigacenter.

Fry estimates that Rackforce, using inexpensive hydro power, is able to limit its carbon footprint to one-twentieth of the average, traditional data centre.

"The facilities are designed so efficiently they can handle the heat for the summer," he says. "And eight months of the year it's cool enough that we don't have to pay for the electricity to do the chilling."