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Perched 14,436 ft (4,400m) above sea level, in the Tarapaca region in northern Chile lies one of the world’s largest copper deposits, which mining company Collahuasi lays claim to. At this altitude, weather conditions become inhospitable, not only for miners but also for technology and infrastructure deployments.

You would think such a company would choose to locate its data center in an easier environment. But mining companies need to have compute facilities close by to mining operations to control the technology and carry out the analysis that is so important to the venture.

Building a data center to support this sector, hence, becomes a challenge which can only be overcome with proper planning and engineering. The only possible way this Chilean mining company is able to deploy in the area, it says, is to employ a pre-manufactured modular 1,076 sq ft data center. This is run by technology services company Aceco TI. It has been in operation without disruption now for two years.

The mining industry is one of the most important sectors contributing to GDP in countries such as Chile and Peru. And it is increasingly turning to data center infrastructure demand for information processing and metal extraction operations. But determining which installation type best meets its needs requires more in-depth analysis than a typical deployment.

Geography dictates
As in any deployment, the data center design for the mining industry depends on factors such as company needs, size and the capacity processing required. What separates these installations, however, is geography. So it comes as little surprise that in Tarapaca, geography is what dictates the build.

Peru is no different. Here mines can be found between 1,640 to 14,765 ft above sea level.

And it is not just the altitude here that causes concern. These locations can be mountain ranges or forests, which adds another dimension of difficulty, Peru IT and consulting company Goals’ general manager Juan Dextre said.

“There are heavy rains in the forest that cause flooding, which means the data center should be protected against the direct water impact, raised above ground level,” Dextre said. “In mountain ranges, the direct impact of the sun can also overheat the external part of a containerized data center, and it can heat up pipes and cables running into it.”

Carlos Morard, Aceco TI director for Latin America, said in the Chilean Mountains, however, operators face a different problem. “More than a meter of snow can accumulate over the data center,” Morard said. “So it is necessary to consider implementation, engineering and other work carefully with environmental issues.”

The mining industry has been considered a potential user for containerized data centers for some time because of the fast build process, their rapid time to deploy and the mobility they offer. But this does not necessarily mean that containerized data centers are the best option for the mining sector.

This could explain why, to date, there is not a unique data center model that services the mining sector. Its requirements for such facilities, according to vendors, have been difficult to identify.

No one-size-fits-all
When it comes to data center demand, Morard said the mining industry has largely been split into segments. Companies require facilities to meet corporate business applications, with the protection of certification. These are often mission-critical and long-term data center facilities. In this case, containerized solutions are not favourable.

But as mentioned earlier, mining companies also need operating data centers to be located within the extraction area. For this, modular pre-manufactured data center solutions – a category that includes several types of container – meets the need. “Mineral extraction is not only a digging operation, it is also related to price quotation and to metals price variation on stock exchanges,” Morard said.

Chilean mining company Codelco, for example, is engaged in copper exploration and exploitation. It has a total of ten data centers throughout Chile. Two main sites, with 8,611 sq ft (800 sq m) each, service the corporate operations and host the legacy systems, enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools and provide capacity for monitoring the mining process operations.

Eight other facilities – which range in size  from 1,292 and 1,615 sq ft (120 and 150 sq m) – are located closer, but not alongside, its mining operations.

Recently, however, Codelco added three containers where it needed to locate equipment very close to the mine, Codelco technology director Marco Orellana said.

“Mining operations can change, so building a data center within the mining installation is very risky,” Orellana said. “The possibility of having to move a data center [at a later stage] is very high. In these cases, containers adapt very well, as they allow for this movement.”

Having a facility close to the mining activity on the ground allows companies like Codelco and Collahuasi to process data on its metal extraction volumes and look at its operations on site in real time. It also helps monitor the safety of equipment and controls for mining processes.

“In many occasions, Peruvian mines are in mountainous regions, thus the mining camp must be located between 6.3 to 9.5 miles (10 to 15km) from the mine’s entrance,” Dextre said.

This is why containers seem like an obvious option but Morard said this isn’t always the case with mining companies.

“There is a tendency to simplify the analysis, by considering containers as rapid and easily applicable solution for an apparently simple need. The places where minerals are extracted are mountains, deserts. They are inhospitable places where, along with the container, a whole engineering layer has to be designed in order to solve connectivity, power and energy issues,” Morard said. He likened it to building a data center on the moon.

To get a modular data center in such environments requires accurate planning and good governance to ensure the operational contingency of the data center. If you get this right, then a modular or containerized solution will work on the mine site, Morard said.

AST Modular Peru distributor Integrity’s Jorge Francesqui said he has delivered modular facilities to mines in the region. He said with the right planning, a company can have a data center delivered in less than three months. But operators need to secure power to get it up and running. Codelco has overcome this challenge by using solar power, generated close to one of its mines.

Mining data centers must adapt to extreme conditions. Image shows an AST Modular container

A data center located at the Collahuasi mine in Chile

Inside the Collahuasi data center in northern Chile

Energy beyond savings

But the energy argument here often has little to do with being green. Goals said it encourages mining operators to look closely at energy savings inside the data center, including the use of free cooling, to make power provisioning easier in difficult locations.

Altitude is another challenge. “Many of the servers’ hard disks are not certified to work above 4,921 ft, so a mining company must think of a solution for altitude pressure compensation or change to solid state drives technology, said Dextre.

Then there are problems that can occur with the integrity of gensets, HVAC and fire-suppression systems. The loss of one of these systems could lead to an outage, causing problems with equipment on the field – and possible risk of life. And communications systems on site are equally as important. But despite the challenges, in Latin America mining sites in Peru and Chile, it appears data centers are running, both pre-fab and containerized. It is testament to good data center design and good planning, and will become more common with growing demand for the region’s resources.