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IT operations drawn to city

Local technology sector gets boost with Canadian Tire computing centre

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Eugene Roman, Canadian Tire's chief information officer, stands inside one of the computer servers in the new $50-million Data Centre on Portage Avenue at Carlton Street.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Eugene Roman, Canadian Tire's chief information officer, stands inside one of the computer servers in the new $50-million Data Centre on Portage Avenue at Carlton Street. Photo Store

That low electronic hum you'll hear in two weeks coming out of the Air Canada building on Portage Avenue is the sound of one trillion digital transactions per minute.

Canadian Tire's $50-million Cloud Computing Centre will go live Feb. 1 and while the decibel level on the street won't actually be affected, the iconic Canadian retailer's new Winnipeg data centre will be dramatically increasing the computing power it pumps out across the country to its 1,700 retail locations.

Up until now, the company's data operations emanated out of centres in Brampton, Ont., and Calgary.

"It will all start flowing from here," Canadian Tire's chief information officer, Eugene Roman, said. "It will be staged. You have to build it up. But what we have in Winnipeg is the latest and greatest. It is all fresh. Some argue that a year from now things will change. But the cloud has matured. Three years ago we wondered what the cloud will look like. Well, the cloud has matured. There is no debate now. We know what it looks like and this centre is scalable in every way."

'What we have in Winnipeg is the latest and greatest' -- Canadian Tire CIO Eugene Roman

Roman and his team of about 50 information technology professionals -- along with many other disciplines including behavioural scientists -- are happy to be in Winnipeg.

The decision to build its state-of-the-art centre here took some explaining to its board but it has proven to be a boon for the company and is part of growing momentum for the technology sector in Winnipeg.

Roman said one of the things about Winnipeg he had to convince his board about was it was not a flood threat. The discussion began before last summer's flood in Calgary, which knocked out some downtown operations for days, compromising some of Canadian Tire's data operations.

Winnipeg's central location, strong labour pool and availability of cheap power -- and the fact the servers, that heat up churning out those trillions of transactions, don't need to be cooled on days when the temperature is below -15 degrees -- may put Canadian Tire ahead of the curve of a flight to Winnipeg in the IT sector.

MTS announced last year it was building a $50-million commercial data centre for third-party customers, some of whom have already been secured after its acquisition last year of Epic Information Solutions.

This week, Hewlett Packard announced it has designated its Winnipeg service centre to be its 12th regional delivery centre in the world and the only one in Canada.

Roman said Canadian Tire's Winnipeg centre expects to grow to 80 to 100 employees. It's not clear if HP's operation will necessarily grow larger than its current staffing of about 150 people but there is an obvious growth trajectory in the sector.

Roman spoke in Winnipeg Thursday morning at the annual meeting of the Information and Communications Technology Association of Manitoba (ICTAM). Ten years ago it had 11 members. It's up to 110 now.

Kathy Knight, ICTAM's executive director, said there is real momentum and there are many efforts to leverage the growing opportunities.

"There is a multiplier effect," she said. "When you get companies like Canadian Tire and MTS and HP starting to make those investments it puts a spotlight on the opportunities. Any time you start putting data centres in a location, that is where there is going to be more opportunities for local businesses."

Canadian Tire's data centre is already developing spin-offs that were not initially planned. The centre will develop all sorts of apps and Roman said when they discovered there was gaming-development activity in Winnipeg they decided to include a gamification lab in the Winnipeg centre.

Canadian Tire spends about $400 million per year on its IT operations, Roman said. Not all of that is going to be spent in Winnipeg, but it will rapidly become a strategic hub for the $13-billion per year company.

Bruce Pearce, vice-president and general manager of HP Canada enterprise services, said its decision to include Winnipeg in its efforts to create what it calls industrialized delivery systems means the city will be one of its select centres around the world with all the latest automation tools and best practices.

"This recognizes Winnipeg as one of the core delivery centres for HP around the world and is now connected with the other 11," Pearce said. "We're very excited about it."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2014 B6

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Updated on Friday, January 17, 2014 at 7:04 AM CST: Replaces photo

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