Computer data firm still thinks Shetland has ‘great potential’

A private company which hoped to build a multi-million pound data centre in Shetland has gone back to the drawing board, but says it is still keen on doing business in the isles.

Alchemy Plus held talks with Shetland Islands Council in April 2010 as part of research into what might have been a “state-of-the-art” £12 million computing resource housing 300 racks of IT equipment. At the time Alchemy stated that it hoped to have the data farm up and running on the outskirts of Lerwick within 18 months.

Since then things have gone quiet, but Alchemy chairman Peter Swanson told The Shetland Times he was still eager to pursue a project here. He said a dramatic shift in technology had given his firm cause to “rehash our whole thinking”. Though the project is “somewhere between the back and middle burner”, he hopes to start developing new plans in the next year or two.

Mr Swanson said technology in the world of data centres had been moving at breakneck speed, akin to the rapid progress seen in the smartphone market in the past few years. Just as mobile phone manufacturers are able to cram more storage capacity into smaller handsets, larger-scale data storage is becoming ever more efficient.

Alchemy already has a small data centre in Dingwall where it has just replaced some computer services with machines which are “physically half the size in bulk, four times the processing power and use half the electricity” of earlier models.

“Whilst things have slowed down, it actually does lean more towards more rural areas being able to do this,” Mr Swanson said. “I think Shetland still has a great potential … and we wouldn’t have wasted the time and effort ourselves if we didn’t think so. [Am I] giving a commitment? No. [Am I] ruling it out? No.”

SIC development director Neil Grant said he still believed attracting IT businesses to Shetland remains a strong possibility, whether it is with Alchemy Plus or another company. Though Mr Grant and other officials and politicians held talks with Alchemy, they did not commit any cash towards the plans.

It was, though, seen as a very welcome potential “by-product” of the innovative seven-figure investment in a fibre optic cable to improve broadband services. Installation of the high-speed link is coming to an end.

Shetland Telecom project manager Marvin Smith said these parts represented an “ideal” location for data storage thanks to being an island location in a cold climate. There is also the security of being far removed from big centres of population, and buying land is relatively cheap.

Data storage is becoming increasingly crucial to IT companies as the “cloud computing” revolution gathers pace. Essentially, cloud computing means more and more programmes being run over the internet rather than on your own laptop or desktop machine. Just as content within email systems like Gmail and Hotmail are stored remotely, companies including Google and Apple see a future where much software, along with music and video files, will be accessed through the internet rather than saved on individual machines.

When Mr Swanson visited last year to unveil the plans, he talked of a 4MW centre – located either at Blackhill Industrial Estate or the Port Business Park at Gremista – which would have fed into Lerwick’s district heating scheme. The centre would have provided around six jobs initially, potentially leading to many more in the longer term.

Alchemy chief executive Steve Chisholm had accompanied Mr Swanson on the Shetland visit, but he is no longer with the company. Mr Grant said that with the change of personnel, the project was maybe something which “needs picking up again”.


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