Cheap power, data pipelines, willing workforce: Portland is a good place for data centers
You hear a lot about the giant enterprise data centers east of the Casacades: Amazon in Boardman, Google in The Dalles, Facebook in Prineville.
A data center is one of those warehouses filled with racks of computer servers that store all your phone calls and selfies as well as Xrays and financial records. You’d think all you need is cheap electricity and cool desert air.
It turns out, however, that Portland is among the five most attractive markets for leasing a data center, according to a report by commercial real estate company CBRE Group.
The rise of cloud computing — where everything is stored remotely from the device you have at your fingertips — has boosted demand for leased data center space in the U.S.
At ViaWest’s data center complex in Hillsboro, security is tight. You speak to a remote guard and drive though a double gate to get to the office area. To enter the data center’s anteroom (break rooms, vending machines, toilets) you must pass another guard behind glass, two video cameras and a metal bar turnstile like those at a sports stadium. There’s also a fingerprint scan and badge scan. To enter the holy of holies, you go though a man-trap, which is a well-videoed hallway where both doors cannot be open at the same time.
Instead of controlling dust and dirt with paper bootees, you walk over a sticky pad which draws impressive footprints and is changed twice a day.
Inside the floor is raised up three feet to hide the wires and allow chilled air to be pumped below the racks of computers. ViaWest offers colocation, which means several different businesses rent space and sometimes hardware there. For example, Orgon’s largest law firm, Stoel Rives, rents space from them. The computers are caged off — some with a ceiling cage. The heads of the screws that hold the floor panels down have been covered up in some cases.
The threat is not so much from a bogeyman but a rogue insider or former employee. Someone who knows which cables to mess with to steal data or worse, destroy it.
Jim Linkous, Regional VP and General Manger at ViaWest, says datacenter business growth has been spectacular in the last five years.
“We’re all dependent on these now,” he says, holding up his smart phone. “And with HIPAA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and Dodd-Frank (The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act) you’re mandated to keep records for decades in some cases. And securely.”
Why do out of state firms choose Portland for their processing power ad data storage?
“No sales tax here is a big factor,” says Linkhous. “We have customers here with $100 million worth of equipment, and at 6 or 7 percent in other jurisdictions, that’s a lot. The other big factor is reliability of power. Seventy percent of our power here is green power, and they pay for carbon tax credits down in California. Companies are becoming a lot more conscious.”
“Six or seven years ago it was different,” says Casey Vanderbeek. He is ViaWest’s Senior Sales Engineer, which means he speaks megawatts and megabits to the techies, and reassuring sales-speak to corporate decision makers.
“Now it’s table stakes, you have to have the green power mixed in. Plus, the workforce is a lot more economical, the cost of living is less here and the quality of life is better.”
Linkhous mentions the “refresh cycle” in tech, where everything is pulled out and replaced every three years.
“One outage and people will reconsider their data center. So for every dollar we spend we spend a third of it on maintenance.”
Most of that is testing batteries, generators and chillers. There are multiple layers of redundancy, including batteries the size of wardrobes, and diesel generators that PGE pays to maintain and use as back up power when the grid needs extra juice on a hot day.
ViaWest offers cloud service but out of state, in Utah, because when customers worry about seismic activity, they run shy of the west coast. Explains Vanderbeek,
“A cloud is just a bunch of servers in a cage, it’s just a difference in who manages it. In cloud it’s an Amazon or ViaWest who buys them and manages them, all the customer has to worry about is getting their application on them. In colocation the customer manages them.” Very few people are allowed into those cages.
Vanderbeek says the unwritten rule is the less people touch the computers, especially in the small, hot closet that passes for a server room in many small businesses, the less down time they will suffer.
Oregon has another ace up its sleeve: thirteen high capacity data cables cross the ocean from Asia and come ashore in Oregon, and four of them meet nearby in Hillsboro.
“It’s like having a superhighway pass right by you. Why not have a ramp?” says Linkhous. He also leads the new 7x24 Exchange Chapter for Oregon and southwest Washington, which aims to promote thought leadership and best practices throughout the critical infrastructure sector.
“The software cluster is thriving in Oregon, we’ve seen it with TripWire, Webtrends, Jive Software, Urban Airship, ActOn, and we’re helping to create the playbook for the next generation of technology. We’re thinking of Oregon as a digital hub, a gateway going into other parts of the world.” 7x24 Exchange is also trying to fit into Business Oregon’s plans, the state’s economic development strategy around public private partnerships.
“So it’s not just a case of people coming to take our power and use our infrastructure.”
In a boardroom at PGE downtown (where some of the 800 staff reside next to Business Oregon) Charlie Allcock, the Director, Business Development at Portland General Electric, also waves his phone around to make the point, that connectivity is now like a utility.
However, data centers are not a huge sector of his business by megawatts. Allcock says PGE pays a lot of attention to other industries: “Food processing, industrial customers around metals, OHSU...We’re strong partners with Business Oregon. Any time a question comes up around power, we’re the experts.”
But they do represent a new growth area, where customers demand reliable, renewable electricity that does not go down for a millisecond. And a chance for economic development.
“It’s an infrastructure play,” says his colleague, Troy Gagliano, PGE’s Business Development Manager. “Last century, the interstate highway system, and electrification, it was a massive investment but it paid off with decades of growth.”
Allcock looks to South Korea, where blazing fast connectivity is the norm and people completely depend on it, able to pay for goods with phones and access video without lag times.
As for Portland, it has a chance if everyone collaborates.
“If we’re going to prosper as an economy, we’ve got to have this structure and it’s gotta run right. We know how to do power reliability and power quality, so let’s support this industry.”