Massive datacenter project under way in Wales

The NGD is building one of the most advanced and secure datacenters in Europe to appeal to companies such as IBM and Microsoft, which are growing their datacenter services

An ambitious project is under way in Wales to build one of the most advanced and secure datacenters in Europe.

Next Generation Data (NGD) is investing £200 million ($346 million) to modify a 750,000-square-foot (69,677 square meters) factory built by LG more than a decade ago near Newport, Wales, intended for fabricating microchips but abandoned after the Asian financial crisis.

The Welsh government has tried for years to find other uses for the hulking structure whose second floor alone can hold two 747 jumbo jets. Now, it's in the midst of a massive retrofit to house thousands of server racks that NGD officials say could appeal to companies such as IBM and Microsoft, which are growing their datacenter services.

Although it was built for microchips, NGD officials say the facility is well suited for a datacenter, ranging from its close proximity to local carrier exchanges, a nearby power substation and to the London area, said Simon Taylor, the company's chairman.

The datacenter is being designed to be "carrier neutral" and will have fiber Internet connections provided by carriers BT, NTL, and Cable and Wireless. NGD is also in negotiations to get a trans-Atlantic connection that would bypass London, which would ensure connectivity in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster such as flooding in the city.

"We actually think that having non-London transit will be a very saleable product for us," Taylor said.

NGD's facility will draw power from a local substation that connects directly to Britain's national grid, also called the "supergrid." The substation can deliver up to 180 megavolt amperes (MVA) in 45-MVA blocks. The amount of power is massive: 180 MVA is enough for a city, Taylor said.

It's tough to get that much power at datacenter sites within the city limits of London. "Power is a very, very scarce commodity," Taylor said.

The former LG facility had several traits that lend themselves well to becoming a datacenter. It has double-skin walls and was designed to be shudder-proof in order to make microchips.

NGD is also fortifying the facility to make it highly secure. A 12-foot (3.66-meters), military-grade fence extending into the ground will ring the facility with an infrared system beyond that to detect intruders. It will have thousands of closed-circuit television cameras, air-lock gates, retina-scan biometric entry systems, and bulletproof and bomb-proof reinforcements in places.

"We've really gone to town on this," Taylor said.

The walls will resist fire for up to two hours. In the event of a power failure, 18,000 liters of diesel fuel is stored on site, which would keep the center running for some 36 hours before more fuel would be needed. It has been classified as a Tier 3 facility by the Uptime Institute, which rates datacenters on infrastructure reliability and performance.

NGD has opted to only hire qualified ex-military personnel for its on-site guard force, which will be at the facility 24 hours a day.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for NGD is the site's location in Newport, about an hour-and-45-minute train ride from London. Some server-hugging IT administrators don't like their equipment being very far away from their offices. But Taylor said those concerns are less relevant given that datacenters are typically managed from afar anyway.

NGD is hoping to sign up companies for long-term contracts. The facility has a total of 18 halls on three floors. The building will have a special section for small to medium-size enterprises and one for companies that are a bit larger. Those companies could either bring their own equipment or use hosting services offered by NGD.

Hosting space starts at 2,500 square feet. For large enterprises, the facility has 10,000- and 20,000-square-foot halls. NGD said it can provide 1.5 kilowatts per square meter or 4 kilowatts per rack up to a maximum of 8 kilowatts per rack.

NGD is in a race against others to get its facility up and running, as there are two to three other large datacenters planned in the U.K. and more throughout Europe, Taylor said. NGD's first clients should move in around March 2009 on the facility's ground floor. So far, NGD has commitments from clients for about 10 percent of the datacenter's 400,000 square feet of usable rack space and aims to fill the whole center in three years.

Since other data U.K. datacenter projects are less further along in their development and companies are desperate for more space, "I think we got our timing right on this. It's just about getting to the point where they're using the broom cupboard," Taylor said.