Cheap and Reliable Power Nurtures Server Farms
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On Mondays we focus on technology. Today, server farms.
In Grant Country, Washington, smack in the middle of the state, bean and potato fields are being transformed into farms of concrete and steel, high-tech computer server farms. They're not really farms, but that's the phrase used to describe the vast collections of computers and networking equipment that make it possible to do all the things we do online.
And while we don't often think about the physical aspects of the Internet, all that computing power requires lots of space and electricity. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:
If you type a simple search query into Google, Yahoo, or MSN, you'll wait less than a second for a reply. You'll wait just a tad longer to retrieve photos or music, or videos. But just where is that information stored?
Debra Chrapaty, who's in charge of computing infrastructure for Microsoft's Online Services, says, some people think of all that stuff as being held in the clouds.
Ms. DEBRA CHRAPATY (Corporate Vice President of MSN): Well, it's not really a cloud. We love the concept of it. It goes up into the sky. Some people go, is it a satellite dish or what is it? No, no, no, it's not. The cloud is just an analogy for server farms.
KAUFMAN: Years ago, when most information was stored on home or office PCs, we didn't need vast amounts of shared storage or the ability to move it around quickly. But now we do. And companies like Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, are erecting huge buildings to house the computing and networking equipment to do it.
(Soundbite of construction work)
In the small farming community of Quincy, Washington, population 5,000, Microsoft is building its largest facility ever. Three buildings: each building roughly the size of eight football fields.
Mr. TERRY BREWER(ph) (Executive Director, Grant County Economic Development Council, Washington): You can see a lot of large earth moving equipment. They've moved thousands of tons of earth over the past two months to...
KAUFMAN: Terry Brewer is executive director of Grant County's Economic Development Council.
Mr. BREWER: As long as there's light, this equipment has been working out here, because they're really motivated to get this project done as quickly as possible.
(Soundbite of construction)
Unknown Man: Louie(ph), we're going to pile it up over here! Never mind. Yeah, you're good.
KAUFMAN: Microsoft plans to open its first building, early next year. When the entire project is complete, it will house about $600 million worth of equipment, but fewer than 100 people will be needed to operate it.
About a mile and a half away, Yahoo will be breaking ground on its 50-acre site next month. Google is now hiring staff for its new data facility in Oregon.
The biggest factor driving these companies to locate in the Pacific Northwest, is cheap and reliable power. At the computing centers at the University of Washington, in Seattle, you can get a sense of just how much power they need.
Professor ED LAZOWSKA (Computer Science, University of Washington): This is the smallest computer facility I'll show you.
KAUFMAN: Ed Lazowska, a senior professor of computer science, shows off racks and racks of equipment, six feet tall.
Prof. LAZOWSKA: Those racks have little, inch-and-a-quarter-tall units in them, and each of those units has a set of computers. You can feel it's plenty hot. You can see there's an enormous air conditioner off to the side. So, about 25 homes worth of power consumed by this little 2-foot by 3-foot footprint.
KAUFMAN: That's right. One rack consumes about as much power as 25 homes. And Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of racks. Their power bills run to the tens of millions of dollars, so saving even a penny a kilowatt means big savings.
Water from the mighty Columbia River flows through the Pacific Northwest, producing hydropower and some of the least expensive electricity in the country. Here in Grant County, it's especially cheap. The reason? Gary Garnant, of the County Public Utility District, explains that more than half a century ago, farmers and civic leaders decided to build two of their own dams on the Columbia.
Mr. GARY GARNANT (Grant County Public Utility District, Washington): It was an amazing step, because at the time, Grant County was so small in terms of people and resources, the idea of building a major dam on the Columbia River became almost a laughable thing. The state said it couldn't be done. Other utilities tried to band together and take it away. It ended up to be quite a fight.
KAUFMAN: But today, Grant County has far more power than it needs and is willing to sell it at a very favorable price: less than half the national average.
The Idle Hour Café is Quincy's nicest restaurant, and owner-chef Gene Rosenberger sees and hears a lot. These days, the talk of the town is development.
Mr. GENE ROSENBERGER (Owner and Chef, Idle Hour Café, Quincy, Washington): Everybody's talking about Microsoft, and it's nice to see some diversity in the income and the spending power within the town. It's just phenomenal that a small community can generate interest from these huge companies, to come in and spend money and build their facilities here. It's pretty cool.
KAUFMAN: Although the number of full-time, permanent jobs that will be created is relatively small, it's a sizable number for this rural community. And the wages Microsoft and Yahoo will pay, are well above the local norm.
What's more, Microsoft and Yahoo might soon be joined by other companies, who've already expressed interest in building their datacenters here.
Restaurateur Rosenberger says he no longer recognizes many of his customers, and when he talks to the out-of-towners, they tell him they're consultants, just looking around.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.