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Since Great North Data set up its data processing centres in Labrador, CEO James Goodwin has been battling public perception – and complaints, about its operations.
Questions have been raised about electricity use, local job creation and most recently, why its cooling fans make loud noise.
“The past summer it was 'oh we’re going to run out of power because of Great North Data.’ Well that didn’t happen. Then it was 'rates are going to go up because of Great North Data,'" said Goodwin, referring to public comments. “If it’s not one thing, it’s something else it seems like.
“To some extend, I don’t think people know what we do and maybe that’s my own fault for not explaining what we do, or how many people we employ.”
The two centres, in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador City, employ 25 people. Goodwin said the operations are environmentally friendly and the company is a good corporate citizen.
“We’ve done $50,00 in charity work in Labrador,” said Goodwin, “but maybe we didn’t do a good enough job advertising that.”
Goodwill from the public has been hard to come for Great North Data, especially in Labrador City, where the data centre’s fans have been causing a mass of complaints. Recently a Facebook discussion thread generated more than 70 comments. Many were critical of the past council who members gave approval for the company to move into Avalon Drive.
Karen Oldford, the former Labrador City Mayor, defended herself and the town’s decision in the same comment thread.
“This region needs to diversify our economy to weather the ups and downs of the Ironore Industry. The need for data warehouses, online cloud storage services etc is forecasted to grow,” wrote Oldford. “So if these businesses are successful, they may be the start of a new cluster/hub of employment for our region. Change like this doesn’t happen overnight – but we have a unique climate and industrial electric rates that make us an attractive place to do business.”
According to an industry article from cisco.com, "data center IP traffic will grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 25 percent from 2016 to 2021.”
Goodwin said the company is replacing the noisy fans and expects there will be no noise issue once the work is done in early September.
He also said the company would love to move to the industrial area of Wabush, where the company owns land, but it can’t move because of permit issues.
“I can give up my permit, I cannot move it. We would gladly move it tomorrow, if NL Hydro would allow us,” explained Goodwin. “We’re in that location because that’s where the power was available. We had other spots in mind.
“We are where we are, because that’s where the power is. The only other option is to shut down business. There’s just not another six-megawatt hookup just sitting around town.”
Behind the scenes, data centres are processing complex computer algorithms for businesses around the world. Goodwin explained data centres are like huge, expensive calculators.
Many people are aware the company processes a lot of cryptocurrency, also known as bitcoin mining.
But the computer equipment also handles processing for cutting edge technology, like artificial intelligence.
For one client, the data centre in Labrador City received thousands of satellite images a day from China, essentially spying on the country’s economic activities. Because of the large number of images, an AI system is needed to sort through what the satellite is seeing.
“There’s a lot of countries in the world where you don’t have reporters calling in and asking questions and you have to take the government’s word for things,” said Goodwin.
“If you want to know how busy the Chinese economy is, you either have to take the Chinese government’s word for it, or you can find other ways.
“The truth is expensive in this world this day and age.”
Goodwin is optimistic Labrador will start to embrace the data centre industry, as it continues to grow rapidly. Labrador has two significant factors that set it apart from other regions: the cold climate – which helps keep the processing equipment cool, and the power rates, which Goodwin describes as some of the most inexpensive in the entire first world.
“Because of the climate and the low cost of electricity, you can do processing. So you can run computers that are doing math 24/7,” he said.
But there are also major challenges for data centres in Labrador, if they want to grow and expand. There is a lack of power infrastructure, like hydro lines and transformers, to carry to the electricity to the client. Great North Data has already applied to NL Hydro for more power, and Goodwin says that request is before the Public Utilities Board.