Cowlitz County's first high-tech company would employ at least 30 people and house thousands of supercomputers near the Cowlitz River. But it’s already causing some confusion.
Longview officials announced two weeks ago that MiningSky, Inc. will move a data processing center into the city's old water treatment plant on Fisher’s Lane, pending a zoning change. The site would be the company's U.S. headquarters.
Since then, readers and online commentators have made a bunch of inquiries and assertions about the project, some wrong, some partially accurate. Among them:
• The data center would “mine” cryptocurrency, a controversial and mysterious digital money earned by solving complex equations with computers.
• The National Security Agency would use the supercomputers for government surveillance.
• MiningSky would physically mine the earth for minerals.
So what is this $12 million enigma?
The core objective of the venture would be to expand the availability of supercomputing capacity in communities around the world.
It would be a two-part operation.
After the old water plant is gutted of its pipes and control panels, the space would house up to 4,000 supercomputers. Customers such as large corporations, universities and tech start-ups would pay MiningSky to host and maintain their supercomputers. They would pay $145 a month per server but there's a 96 server minimum.
These supercomputers draw a lot of power. One of the reasons MiningSky chose the Fisher's Lane location is the facility is already authorized to draw six megawatts of power from the neighboring Cowlitz PUD substation. If it expands, MiningSky may build its own substation to draw power from the Bonneville Power Administration, the region's power wholesaler.
The second part of the business would wire supercomputers together in a way to overcome one of the major impediments to expanded use of supercomputers: the limitations of local power grids.
"At any point in time, if you needed to use a supercomputer but you’ve never had the budget to use a supercomputer, I’ve figured out a way to give everyone access to supercomputer speeds," MiningSky COO Eric Lundgren said.
Economic Development Coordinator Joe Phillips said he is excited about the city's first steps into data-processing services.
“This community has really been looking for ways to open itself up and access some of the tech employment around the region,” Phillips said. “This would maybe be our first opportunity to have something to build from.”
But even he seemed cautious about precisely defining how MiningSky would operate.
"They have people involved with the company that are pretty experienced," Phillips said. "They seem to think this is a workable idea, and I hope they’re right."
Operating a data center will only be about 10 percent of MiningSky's business, Lundgren said. The majority of the business model will be converting oceangoing cargo containers into mobile supercomputer "hosting pods."
Supercomputers are used for math-intensive tasks such as quantum mechanics, weather forecasts and molecular modeling. But running these complex math problems takes a lot of electricity. This limits the number of supercomputers that can hook up to a typical community power grid like the one the Cowlitz PUD operates in communities around the county. It's not as simple as plugging an iMac into a wall outlet in your home.
So why can't the computers plug directly into high-voltage power lines, like those of the Bonneville Power Administration? Well, those lines transmit electricity in very high voltages. The electrical pressure would overwhelm even a supercomputer's circuits. It's kind of like rigging a fire hose into household plumbing: You'd blow out pipes, valves and faucets.
Lundgren says he has a solution to that problem. He plans to package supercomputers together in what is essentially a mobile substation that can then be safely wired directly into high-power transmission lines. As a result, these supercomputer packages could run in a community without overloading the local grid.
Clients from anywhere in the world would send their supercomputers to Longview. MiningSky would package 650 supercomputers together into hosting cubes (the converted cargo containers). Customers can then plug the hosting cube directly into a transmission line from a nearby power plant in their own locales.
These mobile supercomputer units would cost $150,000, and Lundgren expects to sell at least 30 a month.
“I love doing things that are difficult, and this is extremely difficult, but it's needed,” he said.
MiningSky customers could, indeed, use the computing services in a variety of ways, including to "mine" for cryptocurrency. But they have many other uses: Universities could use the supercomputers to host rendering software for graphics departments. Internet companies such as Google could use them to host all their server data in one place. Individuals could use the computing services to map their own genome.
Public concern about earth mining at the old water plant is mistaken but not unfounded. MiningSky is a subsidiary of Canadian company Green Valley Mining. At one time, this company mined cobalt for batteries, but recently it has moved to the high-tech industry, Lundgren said. The Longview operation will have nothing to do with minerals mining, he said.
And as for claims that the National Security Agency will use the technology to monitor citizens, Lundgren said, "There’s zero government participation at this facility as far as the NSA or the CIA. This is being built for industry."
Lundgren said the company’s budget to get started in the United States is $12 million, most of which will go towards setting up a headquarters in Longview.
“We’re building a cup, and you can fill it with whatever you want," Lundgren said. "I just don’t want you filling it on the grid because then you are competing with society."
Solution for an abandoned plant
Phillips said the city struggled to find a tenant or use for the decommissioned water plant, which has been empty since 2013. At one point, a company offered the city about $50,000 to purchase the whole facility to use as a storage yard. The city declined because there were no long-term benefits or jobs for the community.
“It was really hard to conceive of something that would be able to use the facility as-is without being an expense to the public to demolish and prepare for some other development,” Phillips said. “I guess really it’s making lemonade out of lemons.”
If the lease is finalized, MiningSky would pay the city $10,000 a month to rent the Fisher’s Lane water plant. It would be responsible for paying the taxes, insurance and maintenance on the building. The lease would be five years with four options to extend the lease in five-year increments.
First, the Longview City Council needs to approve a zoning change at the facility from residential to mixed-use commercial and industrial.
The city is still completing details of the lease, but Lundgren seemed optimistic.
“Longview is going to be our headquarters only because I think it’s so cool to take that building and retrofit it. I want to tell people one day that this used to be a water treatment facility."