Friday, June 5, 2009

Paper Mills to Green Data Centers

Bruce Segee, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Maine in Orono, gave a presentation today at the Jackson Laboratory about a proposal to build an energy efficient regional data center in a former paper mill.

Bruce started his overview of the CIDER (Cyberinfrastructure Investment for Development, Economic Growth, and Research) submission to the Maine Technology Asset Fund (MTAF) as a proposal to "change the world" by rejuvenating former paper mill space as a green energy platform. It involves partnerships with just about every technology related organization in the state, and targets the facility near Old Town, Maine.

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The facility has 40 Mw of on-site green power in the form of 3 generators (hydro, biomass, and recovery boiler), 135,000 square feet of space, and tremendous cooling capacity from the river. The onsite natural gas turbine can take advantage of the nearby Juniper Ridge landfill, which is generating 5 Mw of natural gas. The cost to produce electricity at the facility is roughly $.06/KwH , and the retail cost of power on the grid is $.22/KwH, so there is clearly opportunity for this to be a sustainable business model.

One ironic issue is that Maine river water is generally too cold for efficient use in the paper industry, as it requires more energy to boil it for the paper making process. This liability becomes an asset for data center cooling.

The cluster they are targeting to build would have 1024 cores and would hopefully make the Top500 list. The computational capacities would be of interest to multiple industries in the state including aquaculture and marine, composite materials, precision manufacturing, and forestry and agriculture.

The location is desirable as Maine does not have a good dispersion of carrier-neutral data centers - most are concentrated in the Portland area. The feasibility analysis finds the idea of selling data center space consistently profitable, and does not propose to sell compute cycles.

Bruce notes the facility's connection with the University will help develop the state's IT staffing resources and expertise - this is critical to the state's technology industry which otherwise has to compete with Massachusetts and other New England states for talent.

Bruce reviewed progress on the proposal, as well as 8 other proposals that all leverage this facility. An announcement of the MTAF funding status of CIDER is scheduled for Monday.

Bruce then reviewed the regional network facilities and issues, and noted that there is great opportunity for Maine to be the crossroads between the U.S., Canada, Europe and the rest of the world. There are currently two pending proposals with the NSF and NIH, with a longer term goal of a "three-ring binder" built with stimulus funding. The network would consist of three network loops within the state running east, north, and west with the Orono facility at the center.

All in all, some very interesting ideas which can hopefully lead towards a vision of Maine becoming another technology hosting region for the country.