In Levis, Quebec – just outside Quebec City – a scenic walk through a park and across a suspension bridge leads to a hydroelectric power plant rated at 24 megawatts. That plant, along with hundreds like it, will power a new facility just ten minutes up the road: a massive HPC datacenter complex planned for nearly a hundred megawatts of computing capacity, powered entirely by low-cost green energy. For QScale, the startup behind the complex, it isn’t just about building another datacenter – instead, they say, it’s about changing the conversation around supercomputing sustainability in North America.
This first campus, called Q01, will comprise eight phases. Each phase will support 12 megawatts of IT load spread across three floors. Each of those floors, in turn, is rated for substantial pressure (equivalent to eight feet of water) in order to enable dense configurations and extensive immersion cooling. QScale says it is capable of powering racks at hundreds of kilowatts and piping up to four inches of water into a given system. Extensive, flexible cabling, meanwhile, will enable customers to tightly couple installations across multiple floors, while high ceilings were included with future quantum computing in mind. The first phase of Q01 is almost complete – on track for late this year – while the second phase is slated for later in 2023.
Cheaper, greener, more plentiful power
The real pitch for QScale comes from how it plans to power its campuses. To enable the substantial power capacity planned for Q01, QScale (“Q” for Quebec, “Scale” for scalability) built its own substation. With dual 120kV lines coming in, the fully redundant QScale substation can feed in 250 megawatts twice over – a level of effort that QScale cofounder Vincent Thibault told HPCwire was “quite unheard of.” 96 megawatts of this will support Q01’s IT loads, with a total envelope of 142 megawatts to support additional cooling and operation requirements.
The lines are being fed by Hydro‑Québec, which leverages the extensive hydropower capacity in Quebec (along with supplemental wind resources) to deliver more than 99% renewable energy at extremely low costs – less than 4¢ (USD) per kilowatt-hour – and with remarkable stability and reliability. Moreover, computing in Quebec City requires much less cooling to begin with; QScale cofounder Martin Bouchard had named a previous colocation company, 4Degrees, after the average (Celsius) temperature in Quebec City in an effort to highlight the climate benefits of the region for computing. QScale says that it can guarantee power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.2 for air-cooled systems, with direct liquid-cooled systems closer to – or under – a PUE of 1.1.
Overall, the project is a near-totally renewable, highly efficient, massive HPC datacenter, promising enormous benefits for the carbon footprints of the workloads it will host. QScale estimates that moving a 50MW workload from Fairfax, Virginia, to Q01 would save over 170,000 tons of CO2 equivalent per year – more than the annual emissions from electricity use of 25,000 average homes in the U.S. (Further, they estimate that Q01’s electricity cost is about 30% cheaper.)
“We think [Quebec City] is one of the best places, if not the best place, to do a computing center in the world,” Bouchard said in an interview with HPCwire, adding that Quebec City was north enough to claim the benefits of hydropower and cold climates “but not too north that people don’t go [there].”
“Smog to tomatoes”
And there’s another advantage to Quebec’s cold climate. “[The climate] means you don’t have to actually cool the computers, because it’s cold outside,” Thibault said, “but it also means that the heat they produce is valuable.” QScale plans to take advantage of that, working with a third party to transfer its heat to nearby industrial-scale greenhouses. In Quebec City, those greenhouses tend to be heated by gas (unlike most homes, which are powered by that mostly-renewable Hydro‑Québec electricity). Needless to say, heating massive, glass-built greenhouses – some of which can be seen from the rooftop of Q01 – comes with a steep carbon footprint during Quebec’s brutal winters.
QScale hopes to use its waste heat to not only reduce existing gas use for nearby greenhouses, but to eventually warm “100 football fields” of greenhouse space, which Bouchard said was around “the equivalent of the actual current greenhouse production in Quebec province.” Such an installation, he said, could – for instance – produce 82,000 tons of tomatoes a year, equivalent to 20 or so 50-foot trailer trucks of tomatoes five days a week. Thibault added that this would help increase the competitiveness of local food production and reduce the need for carbon-intensive food shipments to Canada. “We believe this is where we’ll have a huge impact on our community, by providing fresh food at an affordable cost and a much lower carbon footprint,” he said. (“Smog to tomatoes,” Thibault quipped a few times.)
QScale, in turn, will use these donations of renewable heat to generate carbon credits through Quebec’s carbon market program. The company plans to keep a small percent of those credits to ensure its own total neutrality, then use the remainder to help its clients meet their own climate commitments.
Bringing the European model to North America
Throughout our conversations about this model of datacenter sustainability, Bouchard and Thibault made frequent references to Europe. “I would say we take a lot of inspiration from what they’re doing in northern Europe,” Thibault said, saying that they called the idea ‘going north.’
“I think the ‘going north’ thing started in Europe with, of course, Finland and places like that,” Bouchard added. (HPCwire readers will be familiar with LUMI, the massive Finnish supercomputer powered by hydro that utilizes waste heat reuse.) Bouchard expressed admiration for companies like Verne Global, which powers its Icelandic datacenter campus with 100% renewable energy.
“What’s been going on in Europe has been an inspiration for us,” Bouchard said – but North America, he said, was lagging by a few years. This set the stage for QScale, which is leveraging Quebec City – often called the most European city in North America – to bring that European mentality across the pond. “We’re probably in-between, I would say, so it was more natural for us to see that it’s a great big market,” Bouchard said. “Maybe [Europe is] five years ahead, but we’re closing the gap very quickly, I think.”
Further, they suggested that North America has some advantages over other popular datacenter locations in terms of geological and political stability. “If you look at places like California, you get earthquakes,” Thibault said. “If you look at places like Iceland, you’ve got volcanoes. If you look at a place like Finland, well, you’ve got Russia.” Quebec City, by contrast: relatively politically stable and situated on the stable Canadian Shield. Further, Quebec City does not suffer the same connectivity limitations as a remote location like, say, Iceland.
Satisfying energy appetites at the end of Moore’s law
It isn’t all altruism, of course: Bouchard and Thibault forecast a very real, growing need for private supercomputing centers with cheap, plentiful energy. “We talked with everybody we could in the silicon industry – people that do CPUs, GPUs – and what we realized was that we were basically getting to this asymptote in Moore’s law where we were not getting that many more flops out of every watt,” Thibault said, pointing out how, as a result, the TDPs of CPUs had crept up by hundreds of watts and the TDPs of top-end GPUs were approaching kilowatt-scale. “We designed the facility due to forecasting what was happening on the silicon side, to actually be able to host those new kinds of workloads.”
And those new workloads, Bouchard added, weren’t just being run by hyperscalers and established tech companies – they were being run by companies in pharmaceuticals, aerospace, cosmetics and more. “Now they’re big enough to do their own [HPC],” Bouchard said.
Conversely, he continued, some OEMs were having a tough time selling systems with such enormous power and cooling requirements. “One of the things they’ve been telling us is one of the reasons they cannot sell … is: ‘where do we locate our computers?’”
“The OEMs were coming in and saying, ‘okay, here’s my latest and greatest liquid-cooled amazing 200kW-per-rack system,’” Thibault said, “and their enterprise clients were like, ‘well, that’s super cool, but what do you want me to do with it?’”
“It’s just not feasible for all the enterprise datacenters to upgrade,” he said.
This, Bouchard said, might represent QScale’s biggest market in the short term: “They’re doing the selling, we’re just part of the infrastructure. … They have access to a massive amount of customers, and we have access to a massive amount of space and power.”
So far, it sounds like QScale’s foresight is paying off. Bouchard said that, when they were envisioning QScale three or four years ago, they forecast a normal load at 5-15 megawatts at a time when most people were balking at 1 megawatt; now, QScale is getting RFPs for early next year that measure in the tens of megawatts. (“I cannot say who it is,” Thibault said, “but it’s not necessarily who you would have expected and it’s not hyperscalers.”) Bouchard added that some other prospective customers are looking for capacity in the range of 10 megawatts but have plans to scale to 20 megawatts or more.
“What is interesting is that once we have all that infrastructure in place – the fiber optics, the substation, the two high-voltage power lines – what this means is that we control our destiny,” Thibault said. “So a client can literally come to us and say, ‘I need to deploy 96 megawatts over the next four years,’ and we’ll be able to do it.”
Of course, QScale’s offerings will not be for everyone, and Bouchard and Thibault took pains to stress that Q01 was not a traditional datacenter. “If you look at a supercomputing kind of workflow versus a traditional kind of cloud … you’re looking at a 10×, 20× increase in the density of energy consumption per rack,” Thibault said.
“We’ve built something that is so unique, and – I don’t want to say overbuilt, but if you just host traditional cloud and things like that in something like that, it’s kind of crazy,” added Bouchard.
And, the duo suggested, they would be looking for clients compatible with their values. “We want to power a green revolution, not help companies pollute more,” Bouchard said, adding that there would be “no negotiation on clean energy and heat recovery all the time.”
An expansive vision
But before that green revolution: first operations. As a quick refresher, Q01’s first phase is slated for completion somewhere around the end of this year; QScale expects to begin running its first customer workloads around March 2023. Then, Q01’s second phase – already underway, months ahead of schedule – should be completed around the end of 2023, with the subsequent six phases to follow.
Meanwhile, QScale is beginning work on its second campus, Q02. While Q01 is intended for asynchronous workloads, Q01 – situated closer to Montreal – will serve demand for latency-sensitive, real-time supercomputing workloads. Bouchard expects Q02 to weigh in a little lighter – the plan (for now) is two 12-megawatt phases, as opposed to Q01’s eight.
As for Q03 and beyond, Bouchard and Thibault talked, in broad terms, of possibly locating a site on Canada’s west coast; they also spoke of identifying cities with “problems” (like paper mills shutting down) in order for QScale’s investments to have a larger positive social impact. Broadly, they see QScale’s larger sites moving further outside of big cities, further north and closer to the most powerful dams.
As for threats: “I think our main competitor is inertia,” Thibault said. QScale, he said, aimed for “not just decarbonizing your workload, but actually becoming a forcing function in the market to show it’s possible and that it can be done.” He said that QScale’s first public clients will help push its message forward.
“It’s happening at scale in Europe now,” Bouchard said. “We believe that North America is the next place where it needs to happen.”