A reliable power supply is absolutely indispensable in the data centre business. So Christiaan Keet from the British data centre company Hydro66 is in the right place, standing on former military land, 300 metres from Sweden’s main power-generating watercourse, the Lule River.
“We can extend our existing data centre here by another 14 similar buildings,” says Keet pointing towards the river.
Power lines carrying 400 kilovolts run above his head. Some of this electricity is transmitted to a newly built transformer station nearby that supplies Hydro66. The distance to Hydro66’s supply point is minimal, as is the risk of a power cut, especially as the power comes in duplicate sets of cables and runs into the data centre from both ends.
The transformer station is dimensioned to supply even more data centres, a new basic industry on the rise in the Norrland region in northern Sweden. The ground on the adjoining site is being prepared for another company in the same business, whose identity is currently confidential.
The reason for data centres sprouting up like mushrooms here is everyday society. But few people are aware that every time we use a smartphone app, we initiate processes in a data centre somewhere in the world. Whether we surf the web, store photos, play games, send emails, carry out bank transactions or use some other app, computers in these data centres spring into action.
Data traffic has accelerated as the world is becoming increasingly digitised. The first generation of computer centres were often located in the basements of banks, insurance companies and the like in large cities. These businesses felt safe when their vital data was enclosed within their own walls. However, this is no longer sufficient. Now it is the “cloud” that matters, and millions of computers buzzing away in huge data centres at locations offering lower rents than in the centres of large cities.
“We can offer data storage here at half the price of large cities,” says Keet, who recently booked yet another customer for the server hall.
The race to build data centres in Norrland began in 2011 when social media giant Facebook set up a centre in Luleå.
NO POWER CUTS FOR 20 YEARS
Apart from the advantages of renewable power and a cold climate providing free cooling for thousands of heat-emitting computers, the quality of the power grid was a critical factor for the data giant. Because Norrland has roots in the pulp, mining and steel industries whose rigorous demands on power supplies over the years have created a highly reliable and proven high-voltage grid, this is now a major competitive advantage in the campaign to attract the industries of the future.
“Rumour has it that we had not suffered a serious power failure since President Nixon was in office. Well, perhaps we’re not quite as good as that, but our grid has certainly been glitch-free since the mid-1990s,” says Mikael Börjesson of Luleå Technical University, who is also program coordinator for the regional data strategy.
Hydro66 has established its facility in Boden, a mere 30 kilometers from Luleå and 90 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. Boden is a military town that has struggled with economic adversity for the last 20 years. In the post-Soviet era, many jobs disappeared as the Swedish military was reorganised. When the county hospital was shut down in the 1990s, Boden lost another major employer. A town that had previously been able to rely on public-sector jobs needed a new lifeline.
Erik Svensson, CEO of the municipally-owned Boden Business Agency, was among the first to see the potential for data centres there.
“We had so much already in place here: suitable sites, electrical capacity and abandoned military hangars linked to the grid just waiting to be rented out by the municipality,” he says.
It was a long process to put little Boden on the map, which would have been even longer without the cooperation of a joint initiative called the Node Pole.
At Hydro66, Keet is well satisfied. He is clearly delighted that the buildings, built by local contractor Vittjärvshus, are painted in traditional Swedish Falun red – designed to harmonise with their surroundings.
“We have everything that we need here; stable and cheap green electricity, no need for conventional energy-guzzling cooling systems and both the infrastructure and expertise to hand. These are people who know what 30 degrees below freezing really means and what works at these temperatures,” he says.
The local contractors have joined forces in Boden Datacenter Builders, the external face of 120 tradesmen whose combined expertise covers most of what is needed to set up a data centre.
“We can help with approval applications, groundworks, construction, electrical installations, fibre laying and more,” says Niclas Norberg from Boden Datacenter Builders. A complete data centre can be set up in four months – a key argument used by Svensson and his team when travelling to data centre conventions around Europe and the USA promoting their town.
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