The Darling Downs' biggest farmer has a new crop: Hyperscale data centres

Welcome to Toowoomba, Queensland: Home of a horse and cart museum and Australia’s largest regional data centre

The fertile soil and temperate climate of the Darling Downs region of Queensland makes it some of the best farming land in the state. Accounting for a quarter of the state's agricultural production it is the ideal spot to grow grain, vegetables, legumes and the grass to graze sheep and cattle.

These Goldilocks conditions are also perfect for a crop never before cultivated in regional Australia: Hyperscale data centres.

The region’s biggest farmer – FKG – is currently building a 29 hectare Tier III data centre called Pulse DC, the first of its scale outside of a major Australian capital city.

As land prices rocket in cities and their surrounds across the country, the company believes it has found a more economic answer to the nation's growing data and compute needs.

Can a data centre stuck out in the country ever bear fruit? Yes, says Pulse DC's general manager Peter Blunt: "We see the opportunity".

Fields with benefits

FKG is a privately owned construction and engineering firm. More recently it has expanded its portfolio to include a plant-hire business, 28,000 acres of cultivation, gas fields, retirement villages, abattoirs, and since two years ago, data centres.

A 2016 Frost & Sullivan report forecast the overall data centre market to grow at a CAGR of 12.4 per cent till 2022, with the Australian market reaching more than $2 billion by 2021.

“We started to see the large hyperscale providers and the large wholesale clients coming into Australia,” Blunt told the audience at a Schneider Electric event in Sydney on Tuesday. “It’s the wholesale side of the market which is by far the largest part of the Australian market and it’s going to continue to grow in that way.”

These big buyers want cost effectiveness and scale, Blunt says: “And this is where a regional location really comes into its own.”

Saddle up

The top visitor attraction in Toowoomba – the nearest town to the Pulse DC site – is the Cobb and Co horse drawn cart museum. When the local council changed the town’s entrance sign, one wag suggested: “Welcome to Toowoomba: wind your clock back 40 years”.

It’s not the most obvious home for the latest and largest technology hub in the country. But all the essential ingredients for a major data centre operation are there, said Blunt.

“Traditionally we’ve always had data centres in capital cities. The reality is these cities were selected because they were the easiest places to get a boat into. For some reason we’ve adopted that these are the right locations to do a data centre,” he said.

In order to make a data centre viable in a regional location, you need power — “lots of it” Blunt explains; good network connectivity; a gentle climate and easy access.

The chosen site for the $100 million Pulse DC and surrounding development is a 20 minute drive from the cart museum towards the Kumbarilla State Forest.

“Within 100km of the site we have 46 power stations. The data centre is fed by the same power loop which feeds the Brisbane CBD. In terms of the stability of power, we have the benefit of the regional location with the same level of resiliency you would expect in Brisbane or Sydney,” Blunt said.

Should the site need to up its power, the local provider is able to make infrastructure upgrades and supply 100 megawatts up from the current 10MW.

“It’s difficult to get a site in a CBD location with 10MW of power,” Blunt says.

The site also sits on communications networks which run through inland Queensland to the north and south, and on backbone links to Melbourne and Sydney.

Staff and clients are served by the new Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport, a 20 minute drive away, which opened in 2014. A nearby billion dollar road bypass is set to open in 2018. And on Tuesday night the government gave an $8.4 billion boost to an inland rail plan to link Brisbane and Melbourne.

But one of the main draws of Toowoomba is its climate. The optimum weather for legumes is also good for data centres. Keeping equipment cool is a major operational cost, and the typically cooler relative temperature of the area means Pulse DC can “maximise the free cooling benefits of the climate”, while avoiding flash flooding and severe storms (which caused a major outage of Amazon Web Services in the Sydney region last June).

Infinite scale

Civil works complete, construction on the data centre is currently underway and the technical area fit out will begin in August. An adjoining technology park is expected to generate 5000 new jobs in information, media, telecommunications and agricultural technology. The town's local paper, The Chronicle, has already dubbed it Toowoomba's Silicon Valley.

The total area of the plot is 200 acres, leaving plenty of room for expansion, something that is rarely easy on a city’s outskirts. “It gives us the ability to pretty much scale our data centre out as far as we want to. That scale for us is a differentiator,” says Blunt.

A single, large scale location means there are savings in the ancillary running costs, Blunt says.

“We’re able to deliver to our customers in the most cost effective way. As it becomes more commoditised increasingly the question is going to come back to the lowest cost of delivery,” he adds.

A diagnosis from Quincy

The idea of building sprawling data centres on far-away farmland is not entirely without precedent. In 2006, Microsoft built its own on a 75-acre site in Quincy, Washington.

The town's cool climate, reliable hydro-electric power, good communications links and cheap land attracted the likes of Dell and Yahoo too.

“This is a model that FKG saw as a type of model that we see long term where we’d like to see Toowoomba taken. Among the potato fields here you’re looking at 150 to 200mw worth of IT load,” explains Blunt.

Although not everyone in Quincy is thrilled about the arrival of tech giants, the businesses have been a boon for the county. Toowoomba's residents are hopeful. The town's mayor is giddy with excitement: "We’re on a roll... It’s a good time to be mayor" he told The Courier Mail about the plans.

“What that’s meant for the town of Quincy?" said Blunt. "Their population has doubled since data centres came to town. And the average wage has doubled as well. That’s the long term vision of where the people who back the FKG development see this taking us.”

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