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Server Farms Becoming a Cash Crop in the Midwest

May 7, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A new kind of farm is popping up. Tucked away on small plots on America’s back roads, it cultivates no soil or seed.

Rather, it nurtures curiosities about everything from porn to pinochle expressed in a nearly endless sequence of 1s and 0s queried from desktops, laptops and iPhones around the globe.

The computer server farm _ huge banks of computer servers doing the heavy-lifting logic of Internet giants like Google, Yahoo and Amazon _ is bringing bits of Silicon Valley to places like Pryor, Okla., and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Moving inland means quicker connections by getting closer to customers. Spreading hubs across the continent makes networks more dependable. And tax breaks await.

But server farms also guzzle electricity, the way computer technicians gulp Red Bull. The farms are massive, up to football-field-sized, buildings filled with racks of servers.

So finding places where the light bill is, well, lighter goes a long way toward pleasing stockholders.

“If you can make the machines use power 5 percent more efficiently, that could save tens of millions of dollars,” said Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University.

Consider Google’s decision to plop down server farms on the outskirts of Pryor and Council Bluffs _ the latest expansions from its original hub in California. Both sites come with tax abatements that will save millions. And by sitting 1,000 miles from another new server farm that the company has planted on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon, the search engine lowers the chances that a West Coast brownout will dash your ability to Google your blind date.

Similarly, diversifying locations makes Google’s network more stable as sabotage or natural disaster in a single location will have less impact.

Google acknowledges building five server farms _ all in cheap-electricity locales _ in the United States and dozens around the world.

At the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Oklahoma, amid a Gatorade plant, a pipe manufacturer and nearly 80 other companies, Google is piecing together a plain-looking 100,000-square-foot building it will stock with servers. Next to the industrial park stands a coal-fired electrical generating plant operated by the Grand River Dam Authority.

It helps that the price is right. Google’s corporate headquarters sit in Mountain View, Calif. The average industrial electrical rate in the Golden State runs about 9 cents per kilowatt hour. In Iowa and Oklahoma, the meter runs at between 4 and 5.5 cents.

“Google is … not the type of industry that is really dependent on location, since its product is Internet-based,” said Justin Alberty, Grand River spokesman. “The real factors in choosing a location tend to be land, water and electricity.”

Server farms, also referred to as data centers by the industry, are also becoming more common with the growth of “cloud computing.” The term refers to companies building massive computing power and then renting that capacity out to other firms. Amazon, for one, sells not just books, but time on its servers to run Web sites or store electronic records.

In that way, computing is starting to look like the next utility. In the same way it would be inefficient for each home to have its own electrical generator, it can make sense for consumers and businesses to farm out their computing needs. Some analysts even see consumers buying less highly powered personal computers in the future and relying on firms like Google to fire up the necessary microprocessors when the demand requires.

Even the Microsoft of Bill Gates, who said just a year ago that “we’re making the (personal computer) the place where it all comes together,” has just launched a data storage and Web software system called Live Mesh. It’s the company’s late entry into cloud computing. Already, Google offers word processing, spread sheet and slide show programs for free that compete with what Microsoft sells (think Word, Excel and PowerPoint) with its operating systems.

“You gain efficiency,” said Gurdip Singh, a computer scientist at Kansas State University. “Instead of having your own servers sitting idle part of the time, you share that capacity with others using the same service.”

That consolidation of data processing power is becoming a powerful industry trend. Last year, Sun Microsystems unveiled modular units designed for cloud computing and fitted into 20-foot shipping containers. This month, IBM introduced the iDataPlex with claims that it squeezes twice as many computers in the same space as other systems and runs on 40 percent less power.

Server farms can grow huge, consuming up to 100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 20,000 American homes.

With perhaps 100,000 pizza -box-sized machines, the buildings are filled with the constant sound of fans blowing over the processors.

Cooling costs _ yet more energy consumption _ can rival the electricity demand to run the computers.

In that way, even your Google search has a carbon footprint. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that server farms consume at least 1.5 percent of all U.S. energy.

“Definitely, there’s no getting around the energy,” said Dan Andresen, and associate professor of computing and information services at Kansas State, where he runs a small-scale server farm. “At the same time, you can think of how many millions of gallons of gas have been saved by people using Google Maps rather than aimlessly driving around.”

Besides electricity, server farms typically require a good water source because the outposts often use water-cooled systems (for a 20 percent energy savings) rather than conventional air-conditioning.

Server farms, like their agricultural counterparts, require ever fewer people to produce even more. The facility going up in Council Bluffs will need only 100 workers to tend to thousands of computers that represent a $300 million investment by the company. And it plans to double the facility.

“It’s big,” said Mark Norman of the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce. “And it’s only getting bigger.”




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