Will IBM data centre turn Barrie into a tech hub?

The announcement Tuesday morning of the release of more than $210 million by IBM, and the governments of Canada and Ontario for a research and development program was billed as “game changing” in its potential to boost the province’s ability to develop technology and bring it to market.

More than 145 new highly skilled R&D jobs are already expected to be created with the launch of the IBM Canada Research and Development Centre, the program’s virtual centrepiece that will use cloud computing to network a provision computing power among the project’s stakeholders. An additional 100 indirect jobs related to the construction by IBM of a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified data centre, will be created.

Jeff Lehman, mayor of the City of Barrie, is hopeful the program will also transform the tech landscape of the southern Ontario municipality. IBM is building its environmentally-friendly data centre in Lehman’s city.

“We’re not just talking about the 145 Ph.D- level research jobs and the construction jobs. A data centre needs a lot of unique IT and non-IT related supportive services,” said Lehman.

Barrie as a data centre hub

Lehman foresees the IBM facility, slated for completion in fall of this year, providing employment for various Barrie businesses in electronics, technology, catering and other sectors.

Lehman, however, said it would be too early to tell if Barrie would evolve into a tech-hub similar to other Ontario cities such as Markham and Waterloo. But there may be room for specialization, he said: “Markham has its software developers and Waterloo is known for its telecom. Maybe Barrie will be known for data storage and data management.”

The city with a population of over 135,000 has a 20.45 per cent employment growth rate. Among its major employers are BMO, Scotiabank, and TD Canada Trust. BMO has a data centre and TD has a technology and operations centre in the city.

“The spinoffs and startups from this program can be ten fold,” said Barrie Conservative MP Patrick Brown. “The area that the researchers will be looking into will create the next generation of jobs in the tech sector,” he said.

Program’s areas of focus

IBM will invest up to $175 million through December 2014 in the project to form the IBM Canada Research and Development Centre. The Ontario government has earmarked $15 million and the federal government will contribute $20 million to allow the consortium of seven southern Ontario post-secondary institutions to install high-performance IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputers and develop cloud computing and agile computing platforms. Agile computing is a software development method that uses iterative and incremental development techniques where solutions evolve through the collaboration of various cross-functional teams.

The seven universities involved in the project are: The University of Toronto, Western University, McMaster University, the University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, the University of Ontario-Institute of Technology and the University of Waterloo.

The program will provide access to data and provision computing power to various researchers involved in the program when they need it, according to John Lutz, president of IBM Canada.

For instances, he said, the massive computing power of IBM supercomputers and the company’s analytics technology can be shared by researchers across the province. Using the IBM Canada Research and Development Centre as a hub, researchers can also share data among themselves rather than work in silos. “We will apply new and collaborative approaches to Canada’s productivity and competitive challenges,” said Lutz.

The collaboration and free flow of ideas and computing power will boost innovation in the region, said Prof. David Naylor, president of the U of T. “This brain chain will bring about brain gain,” he said.

Naylor said the collaborative research will touch on areas that have the potential of enhancing peoples’ lives both in Ontario and around the world. The areas of focus of their collaborative research will include:

  • Problems related to rapid urbanization and aging infrastructures
  • Healthcare challenges related to rising healthcare cost, afflictions of the brain and production cycles of medicines
  • Water conservation and management in urban and rural areas
  • Energy conservation and management and the efficient use of weather modeling and smart grid technologies
  • Software innovation and use of high performance computing

“Ontario is becoming a world leader in tackling world problems. But we can’t do it alone, we also need the partnership of industry leaders,” said Naylor. He said cloud computing and agile computing can help researchers mine “big data.”

Researchers today have access to more data than they have ever had before, said Naylor. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose. We need to make sense of this data…and we can use agile computing to make better decisions.”

Nestor ArellanoNestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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