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Wires connecting serversFernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Oil, lumber and water are crucial resources, but some of Canada's most coveted assets in coming years could be sprawling server farms that are cooled with the winter air and hidden away in non-descript buildings from coast-to-coast.

The country has been ranked the second-best place on the planet to house the massive computers needed to run corporate networks and Internet sites.

Those giant centres of computing power are large users of power, and can be attractive targets for terrorists and others looking to disrupt communication links. But Canada has a wealth of relatively cheap electricity, inexpensive cooling thanks to the weather, competitive corporate tax rates, and political stability - all of which place the country just behind the United States, and well ahead of other global hubs such as China and India.

The ranking comes from the Data Centre Risk Index, developed by real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield with London-based engineering consultants Hurleypalmerflatt Ltd.. Now that fibre optic wires connect most of the planet and physical location matters less than before, the study tried to weigh other factors for companies to consider when deciding where to house servers.

"Second place is great but Canada should really be at the top of this industry because of all the geographic advantages it has over just about any other location in the world," said Anton Self, chief executive officer of Bastionhost Ltd., a data centre company in Halifax.

The data centres are not just warehouses full of hard drives. They are often massive buildings that house the computers needed to run the day-to-day operations of governments and corporations. About 50 per cent of their energy consumption goes toward powering the computers, the other half toward cooling them.

Greenpeace recently released a report that said if the Internet were a country, it would be the fifth-largest consumer of energy, largely because of the massive data centres that run unseen in the background. The group estimated the centres will use 1.9 billion kilowatt hours of electricity by 2020 - more than the amount currently used by Canada, France, Germany and Brazil combined. (The average U.S. home uses 8,000 kilowatt hours a year.)

But Canadian companies have been able to whittle the cooling costs to near zero in some cases by tapping into water-based cooling systems and inventing systems that suck in cool air from the outside to keep the temperatures down inside.

"It takes a vast amount of mechanical and electrical infrastructure to power everything from Google to Facebook," Mr. Self said.

While countries such as China, Russia and India are building data centres rapidly, they scored low in the survey because of government regulations, energy costs and the risk of natural disasters.

"Canada scored well in absolutely every category except the cost of labour," said Pierre Bergevin, chief executive officer of Cushman & Wakefield's Canadian operations. "But I certainly don't take that as a negative thing - that just reflects our quality of life."

Canada's largest data centre is in downtown Toronto in a $192-million facility owned by Allied Properties Real Estate Investment Trust. It powers much of the city's Internet and telecommunications activity and has 26 backup generators, dozens of security cameras and special hallways designed to trap intruders between locked doors if necessary.

Indeed, security is one of the most important factors for the companies and governments who choose to house their data and processing power outside of their own walls. International customers make up about 60 per cent of the customer base in Canada.

"There is certainly a reputation of safety in Canada," said David Lod, a vice-president at Care Factor, a data centre company based in Calgary.

"Security is one of the main attractions - we don't put signs on our buildings, and we don't publish our address. This is pretty standard across the industry."

While Allied's Toronto data centre is the largest in the country at about 400,000 square feet, it is dwarfed by some of the largest in the world-leading United States. The Lakeside Technology Centre in Chicago, for example, is 1.1-million square feet, and uses enough electricity to power 10,000 homes.

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