Apple and the Fields of Athenry

I hate to rain on the Apple parade, and in a lot of ways it's good news for Athenry, but some of the hyperbole, particularly the political kind, is irritating. First off, this is a data centre. We can assume land costs are on the order of $5 million. Construction costs for shelled out DCs are pretty low, in comparison to office buildings. The vast majority of the $850 million budget, will be spent on servers. Rough estimates say they might deploy up to one million of them. List prices for DC servers run from $1,000 on up. Apple will end up paying a lot less than that. Either way, unless Athenry makes computers, most of that money is going elsewhere.

Intel in Leixlip could do well. Server manufacturers around the world are no doubt already working on quotes. In terms of staffing, the facility will need 24/7 care. If they're quoting staff numbers in and around 100, that means four shifts of 25 DCOps (or data centre operations) staff, whose job it is to install new equipment and replace faulty servers and hard drives. You can be trained in how to do this in a matter of weeks. You don't need motorways to Dublin or Shannon, because your job doesn't involve travel. These types of facilities are called "lights out" facilities because they run in total darkness (unless DC Ops staff are on the floor, obviously). Why waste electricity providing lighting for banks of computers? Some "artists impressions" of the data centres show them with large windows. Obviously the artists in question have never looked at a photograph of a real data centre, which can often look like a high security prison. Windows don't help with heat efficiency or security.

The real reason Athenry is ideal for Apple is due to the cold weather, the ESB fibre to Dublin, along with the motorway fibre, the railway fibre, and the imminent arrival of a new transatlantic cable, via Belmullet. To understand the energy economics a bit better, the quoted 360MW of power used by a DC such as this is mostly transformed to heat, by thousands upon thousands of servers. For every kilowatt of power that a server consumes, another 200 watts is needed to remove the heat produced. That figure can go as high as 600 or even 800 watts. Power is one of the biggest costs in your average data centre, and cooling is a big headache. The ratio of total power used in comparison with power used by servers, is called Power Usage Effectiveness or PUE, and Apply will be gunning for a PUE in the 1.2 range. This will mean 300MW of power for around a million servers, and 60MW of cooling. By choosing rural locations where land costs are low and cold winds are plentiful, you can reduce the cooling bill and bring that all-important PUE down. It also helps if there are large amounts of renewable energy sources around, but wind energy while great, is unreliable. We do get calm days in the west of Ireland, and if it's hot and calm, the PUE can start to creep up. Luckily for Apple, those days are rare.

Wind energy is on the order of the cube of the wind speed. Simply put, 10km/h of wind might produce 1000 units of energy, but 50km/h will produce 125,000 units. Or 125 times the energy, assuming that 10km/h is strong enough to rotate the blades of a wind turbine, and 50km/h isn't too strong. While that's great, and we do get our fair share of strong winds, looking at it from the DC perspective, if the wind drops from 50km/h to 40km/h and those of us in exposed areas breathe a sigh of relief, the power produced will halve. That means having to get 50% of your power from traditional sources just due to a drop of wind speed from 50 to 40. By the time it drops back to 10km/h, almost all of your power needs are coming off the national grid. But let's not quibble. Any opportunity to reduce our dependency on coal, to reduce the amount of CO2 we produce, and to reduce the impact and need for the unsightly Moneypoint Power Station, is a good thing, even if a lot of the green energy we produce is being used for iTunes downloads.

In reality, Apple is known as a good employer. They've always treated their staff well, and the one hundred DC Ops staff can look forward to a range of benefits and perks which may make their neighbours quite jealous. But unfortunately this isn't a windfall for Athenry in and of itself. The people of Athenry could use it to their benefit though, by trying to attract other players into the market. If Apple is there, then there is a guarantee of high-bandwidth IP connectivity to the East and to the West. In addition, wind farm developers may choose to locate in the area, and the national grid will have to make sure that the area is well-served by traditional power. All of this makes Athenry a good choice for other data centre operators who to date have chosen the "T-50" (a highly-interconnected area in West Dublin, and home to both Google and Microsoft data centres). Good for connectivity, but not as good for land prices and natural cooling.

All in all, it's great news for Apple, Athenry and the west in general. But be careful when people bandy about FDI figures of $850 million. Oh, and if you are reading commentary about Apple in Athenry, and the article mentions the Google and Microsoft DCs in Dublin but doesn't mention Amazon, then they are uninformed and should not be trusted.. Amazon are the 800lb gorilla of cloud computing, and the best-kept secret in cloud. They operate six enormous facilities in south Dublin, which is nothing in comparison to their facilities in US-East.