Why aren’t all data centres in the Arctic Circle?

By Peter Gothard
29 Aug 2013 View Comments

It's increasingly fashionable to build your data centre somewhere cold and remote, where cooling is free and renewable energy flows thick and fast from water or wind power. Iceland is a particularly popular destination right now, with the likes of Colt and BMW shipping out to its chilly climes. But if it's so great, why isn't everybody doing it?

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"The guys operating out of Iceland are trying to attract business there, the key drivers being cooling," says Gary Boyd, director of data centre project engineering at managed hosting firm Rackspace.

"But one thing to bear in mind is if you have a very cold environment externally, you also need to use energy to warm up the air, to keep it at a certain temperature."

"You also have to spend more money to humidify the air [as dry air can cause static electricity which can fry components], as it's very dry the colder it gets. So it's not always the case that the colder it is, the better it is."

But breaking through urban myths about cooling isn't top of Boyd's agenda. For him and Rackspace, who still run the majority of their data centres in the UK, the real test for a business case is on how available operating resources are in far-flung areas of the globe, no matter how attractive the temperature.

"Can we get the relevant skilled people?" asks Boyd. "We're a managed hosting company, and as a result of that we need people on-site 24/7, so it's not unusual for us to need a data centre that can house 50 or 60 people working in shift patterns.

"And that's people responsible for the chemical electrical systems and also looking after server operations and network operations. So we'd need to be able to find those people, with the relevant skills and experience that could operate the centres and provide the support we need for our customers."

Boyd is convinced that to keep trying to recruit from remote, underpopulated areas is a solution with limited shelf-life - especially as far out as the arctic.

Jeff Monroe, CEO of Iceland-based data centre company Verne Global doesn't - perhaps unsurprisingly - agree with many of these assertions.

Iceland in particular, Monroe argues, is in a temperate "sweet spot" that offers genuinely year-round free cooling.

"Iceland also has dual energy sources in geothermal and hydroelectric, both abundant and both inexpensive," he says. Compared to the North Pole, which Monroe states, in agreement with Boyd, would be "less efficient because you have to humidify the air", building a data centre in Iceland is a no-brainer in terms of cooling which, he maintains, "usually counts for up to 40 per cent of the cost".

Specifically, Monroe maintains that BMW, which uses Verne Global's data centres for processes such as crash simulation data analysis and CAT engineering, has actually achieved an 82 per cent saving "on power alone" since it began using Verne Global.

Monroe is also highly defensive of Iceland as a recruitment area, disagreeing with Boyd's point about taking on staff too far from home.

"Iceland specifically has a very educated workforce," he says.

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