Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Monday, January 30, 2023

Steel Mill Transformed Into Juiced Datacenter 

A former steel mill outside of Philadelphia that is connected to more than 2 gigawatts of electricity has been converted into a datacenter and is opening up its doors to accept servers, storage, and switches in early 2015.

The mill is a former US Steel facility that was built in 1953 and that made steel beams and plates as well as had a galvanizing operation, among many other activities, on its 1,600-acre site. The galvanizing operation is still running, but the mill itself was mothballed in the late 1980s and has been lying fallow. But as Shawn Carey, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Keystone NAP, explains to EnterpriseTech, people don't build the kind of power infrastructure today that the Fairless Works steel mill had, and interestingly, the power circuits have been kept in good working order all these years.

NAP is short for Network Access Point, and that is just another way of saying it is a datacenter that has lots of feeds coming into it where branches of the Internet link to each other and to the outside world, and Pennsylvania is, of course, the Keystone State. The Keystone NAP is located about 35 miles north of Philadelphia and about 65 miles southwest of New York City in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, which is just five miles across the Delaware River from Trenton, New Jersey. Fairless Hills was itself established in 1951 by US Steel, and is named after Benjamin Fairless, who was president of US Steel at the time; the town was built using prefabbed homes that housed the employees of the Fairless Works plant.

The Keystone datacenter is actually located in a facility called the Motor Building, which was the electric and mechanical heart of the steel mill in that it contained the electric motors that ran the mill. And the idea of prefabricated homes is echoing across time in that Keystone NAP has contracted with Schneider Electric to build double-wide and quadruple-wide modular datacenters that can be packed and stacked inside the renovated Motor Building. The Motor Building is pretty large, at about 1,000 feet long by 60 feet wide, and it has three floors of vertical space, says Carey, and therefore it translates into about 180,000 square feet of datacenter floor space. The old steel mill is located on a peninsula and is well above the flood plain of the Delaware.


The floor space, the ruggedness of the Motor Building, and relatively short distances to Washington DC and New York and the very short distance to Philadelphia all make the Keystone NAP attractive, particularly for companies who want to have low-latency links to both New York City and Washington. Carey says that the facility can do synchronous communication links to Philly and NYC and yet be out of the "blast zone" of the datacenters outside of New York and Washington. (In terms of latency, the Keystone NAP is about a quarter of the distance from New York that the US East region of Amazon Web Services is, and therefore the latency, all things being equal, should be only a quarter as well.) The site is also located along Amtrak train lines and has highways nearby, too.

But the big advantage that Keystone NAP has is electricity, thanks to its steel mill heritage and its proximity to generating facilities. The Keystone NAP site has a series of its own 69 kilovolt substations, which aggregate the power of four industrial-grade power feeds with a total of 2.040 megawatts of juice. This includes the PSEG Mercer generating station across the Delaware in New Jersey, which is a coal/gas facility rated at 747 megawatts; the Dominion Energy natural gas generating station, rated at 1,180 megawatts; the Wheelabrator Falls facility, which burns trash to create 53 megawatts of electricity; and the Exelon Fairless Hills steam generating plant, which creates electricity from a landfill gas reserve to the west of the facility that is burned to create steam to in turn push turbines to make the juice. Add it all up, and there is 2,040 megawatts of juice being generated nearby, and the close proximity of the Keystone NAP to these facilities means that customers can get power relatively cheaply because the transmission fees are minimal. Keystone NAP bundles in power consumption with its facility rental rates, and it only changes based on what companies use rather than for a rates power per modular datacenter as many datacenter operators do, which will help companies save money. So will the fact that the rates Keystone NAP is charging are on the order of 50 percent lower than fees for electricity in the big datacenters in Weehawken and Secaucus, west across the Hudson River from the Big Apple in New Jersey.

The other monetary benefit that the Keystone NAP can provide is that it is located inside of a Keystone Opportunity Zone, which means any company that is located in Pennsylvania that buys equipment to install in the facility can do so without paying state sales tax.

keystone-nap-networkAs for connectivity, which is as vital as power to a datacenter, Keystone NAP has partnered with Sunesys and Comcast. Sunesys runs its own fiber networks in the Northeast, and Keystone NAP has fast links into network access points in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Northern Virginia that allow it to link into the networks of AT&T, Verizon, Level 3, Zayo Group, and Cogent Communications. These service providers also provide fast links into the Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure public clouds. Comcast provides a regional node link to serve the bandwidth needs of local customers.

If you want to deploy into the Keystone NAP, then Schneider Electric will build a modular datacenter room that gets trucked into the facility and loaded up with your gear. Rather than using shipping containers, which are not precisely the right size, Keystone NAP has opted for slightly larger modular datacenters. The KeyBlocks, as they are called, come in two sizes: a double-wide unit that can house 22 racks and a quadruple-wide unit that can hold 44 racks. All told, Carey reckons the renovated Motor Building can hold about 132 of the double-wide modules, which is 2,904 racks, and using modular systems that can cram four nodes into a 2U space, that would be a maximum of 243,936 servers. That is somewhere between four and five datacenters worth of capacity at Amazon Web Services, just to give you a rough idea.

Each of these KeyBlock modular datacenters has its own power conditioning, fire suppression, security, and cooling and is in effect a fully contained, fully self-sustaining datacenter. The modules can be wired with between 100 kilowatts to 400 kilowatts of power (a maximum of about 20 kilowatts per rack), which suggests that the Keystone NAP can handle a maximum of 58 megawatts of power draw for IT gear if all customers went with 20 kilowatt power density. (That is not as dense as things can get. The Hewlett-Packard 8000 supercomputer clusters can do 80 kilowatts per rack with hot-water cooling.) Schneider Electric is making the modules offsite and the modules of the first customers for Keystone NAP will be arriving on trailers on December 18.

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