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Urbacon’s Barker Business Park Digital Campus in Richmond Hill opened in 2017 with the first of what eventually could be five data storage buildings. The DC1, above, was 50-per-cent occupied before opening.HANDOUT

At the dawn of the computer era, mainframes required entire chilled rooms to house them. Today, with miniaturization of equipment, servers the size of suitcases have more capacity than any of the early behemoths. But they still require enormous rooms, because there are so many more of them.

And they still run hot, so the demand for specially built air-conditioned buildings for data servers has never been greater.

Urbacon Data Centre Solutions Inc. is building an entire industrial park in suburban Toronto dedicated to data storage. The Barker Business Park Digital Campus in Richmond Hill, Ont., (near the intersection of Major Mackenzie Drive and Highway 404) will have a cluster of warehouse-like buildings ranging from 100,000 to 150,000 square feet. The only tenants will be servers and the tech staff to maintain them.

The first of the warehouse-like buildings, Data Centre One (DC1), was already 50-per-cent occupied by a tenant when it opened in mid-2017. The second is under construction, and ultimately there will be as many as five.

With another of its data centres opening in Montreal, Urbacon has now formed a joint venture with Summit Industrial Income REIT to develop, own or operate data centres across Canada.

“This is a Canadian example of what’s happening on a global scale,” says Peter Russell, vice-president of properties and development management for Urbacon in Toronto. “The global demand for data storage and processing has grown exponentially over the past few years, driven by trends like the increase in mobile devices, the internet of things, cloud services and the rise of digital photography and social media.”

The scale of growth is nothing short of phenomenal. Market analyst International Data Corp. forecasts that global data will grow tenfold between 2016 and 2025.

To build a data centre isn’t as easy as some other forms of development. For security they should be stand-alone facilities not shared with other office users. The site also needs to be secure from collateral risks, such as a nearby chemical plant or rail yard, where an accident could restrict access or the potential for seismic activity or flooding, Mr. Russell says.

Importantly, a data centre needs access to plenty of reliable, affordable power. “We can house up to 2,000 racks and that equates to as many as 80,000 servers and the power requirement is from 15 to 20 megawatts. A megawatt is often defined as the power needs for about 1,000 homes, so that’s the equivalent of power for a small city,” says Kevin Johnston, vice-president of data centre solutions for Urbacon.

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Cooling is essential in a data storage centre to keep the rows of high-density servers from overheating.HANDOUT

Redundant power backup is also essential to keep things online no matter what. “Not only do we have generators to back up the hydro utility, we have two generators to back up ourselves. Then we have banks of batteries, with extra battery banks to back them up. Each server has two power connections from separate sources, so if power is lost from one source, the other keeps the server going.”

And then there’s cooling. A data centre consists of rows of racks filled with high-density servers about five centimetres high that run hot. “If you think a stove in your home gets hot, these racks are consuming two to six times that amount of power and produce that much more heat. So in one little rack, you’ve got the equivalent of two to three electric ovens running at full temperature all the time,” Mr. Johnston says.

Canada — and Quebec, in particular — has a competitive advantage in the global market for data storage because of the abundance and relative affordability electric power, Mr. Russell notes. “Canada also may have natural advantage just because about 95 per cent of the year we can bring in cool air from outside to use in cooling.”

But it’s not a case of opening the windows, though. Outside air is directed through a mechanical system to cool the inside air because “you wouldn’t want to let in dust and bugs to the server rooms themselves,” he says.

A cooler climate isn’t necessarily essential, though. Mr. Russell points out that Dallas, which is better known for searing heat than cold, is one of the larger data centre hubs in the United States. Bigger factors in location are proximity to high-tech markets and good fibre-optic data networks.

Expertise is essential, because there are record numbers of data centres being acquired through mergers and acquisitions. Data from U.S.-based Synergy Research Group shows the total value of data centre-oriented merger and acquisition deals that closed in 2017 reached US$20-billion, far surpassing the total for 2015 and 2016 combined. In 2018, there are also four additional major deals that have been agreed but not yet closed, with a total value of more than US$2.6-billion.

A lot of big real estate investment trusts are seeing the attractiveness of the industry, but lack of industry knowledge in data centre operations can be a barrier to market entry, Mr. Russell says.

Urbacon has several business models for data centre tenants. In the simplest, the company builds the facility with primary power and backup power generation and the leaseholder sets up its cooling solutions, power and racks. The next model is wholesale co-location where Urbacon provides the electrical and cooling service and the tenants put in their racks of equipment. Urbacon will also design and build a facility to suit the specific needs of a large-scale tenant.

As mechanical as they may sound, data centres are not necessarily dark boxes. “Theoretically you could build one of these that is entirely windowless and just held backup equipment, but in reality there are a lot of technicians and engineers going in for operations and service,” Mr. Russell says. So the buildings typically feature a glass-enclosed front of house with suites that have full internet access and the amenities computer engineers appreciate, like vending machines, television — maybe even a foosball table.

Print woes open data opportunities

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The new owner of the Toronto Star's former printing plant in Vaughan, Ont., is repurposing it as a data storage centre.The Canadian Press

Not all data centres are built from scratch. As shrinking newspapers outsource their printing, some of their buildings, particularly the ones housing their enormous printing presses, are coming on the market in many cities. These buildings are ideal for data storage.

When the Toronto Star made a deal to use the presses of TC Transcontinental in 2016, it sold its former printing facility in Vaughan, Ont., for $41-million to DuPont Fabros Technology, which is now a part of San Francisco-based Digital Realty Trust Inc.

The four-storey, 710,000-square-foot structure built in 1992 was prime for conversion to a data centre because of its high ceilings and thick floors capable of handling the weight of data equipment, a company spokesperson says. The first phase of One Century Place will consist of 12 computer rooms, totaling about 125,000 square feet of data centre space and 24 megawatts of power. The company expects the centre to ultimately expand to about 23 computer rooms and 46 megawatts of power.

It’s part of a trend. Kansas-based QTS Realty Trust recently opened a 133,000-square-foot data centre with 24 megawatts of power in a former printing plant of the Chicago Sun-Times. The Sun-Times ended its printing operations at the South Ashland Avenue plant in 2011, after 12 years in operation, and QTS bought the 317,000-square-foot building for US$18-million in 2014.

And a facility that used to print The New York Times in Edison, N.J., has been converted to data storage by Phoenix-based IO Data Centers. The 830,000-square-foot plant was one of the largest printing facilities in the United States when it was built in 1992, which was the dawn of the digital era that caused newspaper print runs to plummet, and it was decommissioned in 2008. As a data centre, the facility has its own electrical substation, with a capacity of up to 100 megawatts.

It’s being billed as the largest modular data centre in North America for its capability to expand capacity with drop-in modules. But it’s not the biggest data space in size. That honour goes to the 1.1-million-square-foot Lakeside Technology Center in Chicago. The facility, another Digital Realty asset, used to house the RR Donnelley headquarters and printing presses that once produced another victim of technological change: the Sears catalogues.

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