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The energy crunch is giving a boost to data centers

For years, data center operators have made the pitch that it’s better to outsource electronic commerce operations to their servers instead of doing it internally. Now California’s power crunch is doing the big sell for them.

Data centers,buildings full of servers and networking gear where companies lease space for e-commerce sites or other applications,are a growing segment in Orange County and elsewhere. They’re on a roll as operators say they’re seeing increasing business and more inquiries from companies looking for reliable services. “Because of the current power crisis, a lot of companies in Orange County are realizing the benefits of locating in a data center,” said Gary McKenzie, chief executive of Costa Mesa-based data center operator iCoTech Inc. “Data centers are capable of running for days without power.”

Because data centers have their own uninterruptible power supply systems and even generating capacity built in, they are able to keep servers up and running, even during blackouts.

“Our generators start within three seconds once we lose power from the grid,” said Rex Bell, vice president of special projects at Costa Mesa-based Epoch Internet Inc. “In between (those three seconds), our UPS system will take over.”

Three Days off the Grid

The servers at iCoTech could run for almost 72 hours without power from the grid, McKenzie said. Like other data centers, iCoTech’s facilities use uninterruptible power supply systems. If power goes out for more than three days, “We will have to look at an additional backup source,” McKenzie said.

While many companies are turning to generators as a way to cope with the power shortages, data centers go well beyond that. Epoch’s Bell said his users are assured that they and their customers will have access to data even after an earthquake. Some data centers are built to withstand terrorist attacks.

For companies that rely on the Internet for business, having servers running around the clock is crucial. A server going down for a few hours means lost business.

The power crunch “is helping us to bring new customers to our business who are looking for that type of (fail-safe) environment, especially in the uncertain times,” Bell said.

Both iCoTech and Epoch say they are expanding their data centers to cope with the growing demand, part of which has been fueled by the energy crisis.

Epoch is setting up its third data center,a 30,000-square-foot facility in Dallas. The first phase of the center is set to be operational in the next couple of weeks. ICoTech is expanding its smaller data center facility in Orange. It plans to add an extra 3,000 square feet in the next couple of weeks to its existing 2,000 square feet of space.

While Epoch isn’t commenting on its expansion beyond Dallas, the company is looking at acquisitions for growth. “But a lot depends on the market conditions,” a spokesman said.

ICoTech is laying out ambitious expansion plans.

“Our intention over the next year or so is to have 10 data centers throughout the country,” McKenzie said. ICoTech currently has three data centers.

The growing technology industry and the rush of old-line businesses seeking to set up e-commerce operations have brought more than a dozen data centers to OC in the past couple of years.

WorldCom Inc., Santa Clara’s Exodus Communications Inc. and FirstWorld Communications Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo., have facilities here. In January, a unit of SBC Communications Inc. signed a 10-year, $27 million lease for 150,000 square feet of space in Irvine for a data center.

Power Users

But data centers are big power users themselves. With racks of servers, air conditioning and support systems, centers can draw up to 65 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 65,000 homes. The biggest can peak at 100 megawatts, on a par with a small factory.

But data center operators say they’re doing what they can to conserve power. Exodus and other operators say they’re dimming lights when possible. Besides, they argue, by centralizing servers, data centers use less power than if their clients ran separate operations themselves, each with its own air conditioning and support.

Epoch’s Bell said that data centers eventually gain from economies of scale. It’s uneconomical for companies to set up their backup power capabilities, he said. Epoch plans to spend close to $6 million,or 60% of the project cost,on power supply systems and generators for its Dallas facility to assure a regular supply of power.

“If I was not in the Internet business, I’d be in the power business,” Bell said. n

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