Photo/IllutrationA data center of Sakura Internet Inc. in Ishikari, Hokkaido. Cold air is taken in from the ventilation openings on the sides of the building. (Tamiyuki Kihara)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

In the coastal Hokkaido city of Ishikari, a large warehouse-like building was built on about 50,000 square meters of land near the water.

It might as well be in the middle of nowhere. There are few cars, and humans are scarce. The name of the business is not listed on any map. So what goes on inside seems to be something of a mystery.

The building is inorganically sleek, and it is so enormous that the ends of the structure cannot be seen from the entrance to the premises.

In fact, it's a massive data center of Osaka-based Sakura Internet Inc., where hundreds of server computers are working around the clock.

A data center is a facility where huge numbers of servers are stored and maintained. They have been springing up in snowy, cold country in northern Japan to protect the computers from overheating and, of course, to save on air-conditioning costs if they were kept farther south or west.

Akira Funaki, who works for the company, escorted an Asahi Shimbun reporter into the facility through seven layers of security checks, including a face-to-face examination by other humans and state-of-the-art biometrics scanning.

Behind all these security doors lay a room that resembles rows of lockers in a changing room, but are, in fact, cabinets full of servers.

Funaki pointed at a ventilation opening, and explained, “Cold air is taken in from the outside, and cools down the heat from the servers.”

The servers process data 24/7 and consume a huge amount of electricity. Leaving them without a cooling system, the mercury would hit 50 and beyond in the room, causing the computers to malfunction.

The amount of electricity required to air-condition server rooms to keep the machines operating at the right temperature is, generally speaking, almost the same as the amount of energy required to run all the servers, Funaki said.

However, at this facility in Ishikari, it managed to cut the air-conditioning cost to about 10 percent of what it would cost with an ordinary cooling system by taking advantage of the cold climate here, while maintaining room temperatures at around 20 degrees.

“It is a cost-cutting measure other data centers in the metropolitan area cannot imitate,” said Funaki.

Data Dock Inc. based in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, northwestern Japan, also opened a new data center in the same city in January.

In the data center premises, an enormous amount of snow equivalent to 10 times the volume of a 25-meter swimming pool can be stored, and the snow will be used to offset the heat of the machines during the summer.

The building itself is designed to halve the shock of a strong earthquake with the maximum intensity of 7 on the Japanese seismic scale. The total construction cost was about 6 billion yen ($56.6 million). An additional data center is scheduled to be built in the same premises in three years.

Demand for data centers is expected to rise as applications of computer-based technology will only expand in the future, such as the application of artificial intelligence technology. However, building new data centers is not an easy task in Japan.

Due to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and construction boom surrounding it, land in and around Tokyo is becoming scarce and construction costs are rising.

Amid the merciless battle for data centers, some major trading companies are tapping into the hot market.

Mitsubishi Corp. jointly founded a data center operating business with an American company in October. It plans to invest a total of 200 billion yen to the joint venture over five years to open about 10 data centers around Japan.

Mimei Ito, a research manager of IDC Japan, a research company specializing in IT, predicted that, “The demand for data centers with high-end facility and cheaper maintenance costs will increase.”