Posted by Tom Foremski - May 29, 2012
(Steam rises from the Svartsengi geothermal plant in Iceland.)
I've long been interested in Iceland's potential to become an important platform for server farms because of its natural abundance of geothermal sources, and its position mid-way between N. America and Europe. As the carbon-content of computing becomes more important as a competitive edge, Iceland clearly has a future role to play.
It does not sit in London, Tokyo, Beijing or New York. It is not humming along deep inside a corporate skyscraper.
No, one of the world's newest supercomputers - and apparently among the world's greenest - was recently fired up inside a low-slung grey building with red trim on a windswept plain outside Reykjavik, Iceland.
Instead of locating powerful supercomputers near the companies or institutions that use them, why not build these machines - then ship big data to them at the speed of light - wherever on Planet Earth makes the wisest economic or environmental sense?
World's First Zero-Emissions Supercomputer
The supercomputer at the Thor Data Center is based on a cluster of 288 HP ProLiant BL280c servers. The Intel Xeon Processor L5530-powered cluster is composed of 3,456 compute cores with 71.7 terabytes of usable storage, and pumps out 35 teraflops of performance.
While building and shipping the machine's parts to Icelandic-produced CO2, the machine - and in fact all of Iceland - is powered 24/7/365 by a mix of nothing but renewable hydro and geothermal power. To light up Iceland's electrical grid, no fossil fuels puff, smoke or burn.
Power Costs Far Lower Than Europe
As a result, the cost of power to run the Thor Data Center is significantly lower than it would be in continental Europe. The latest figures show that electricity in Iceland, which costs about .05 Euros per kilowatt hour, is about 20 percent cheaper on average than power from the European Union's 27 other nations.
That is a huge number - 20 percent. Today's newest data centers and supercomputers, even those running the most power-efficient, latest-generation enterprise processors, still inevitably slurp large amounts of electricity. So even tiny cuts in power costs can translate into big money.
"This really gives us a one-of-a-kind opportunity," said Kolbeinn Einarsson, the head of business development for Advania, the Icelandic IT company that built the Thor Data Center in conjunction with the National High Performance Computing organizations of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland.
Chilly Icelandic Climate a Plus
Einarsson says that power costs in Iceland are predictable and stable, unlike those in many other parts of the world. And Iceland's chilly but despite the country's name, not frigid - temperatures make cooling a data center even more appealing.
Reykjavik's warmest month is June, when the average daily high temperature is just 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 Celsius), and the low is 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius). Reykjavik's coldest months are December and January, when the average daily low is a tolerable 28 (-2 Celsius).
The Thor Data Center draws power from entirely renewable resourcesIceland's data centers draw power from geothermal plants, such as the othermal plant. (Flickr photo)
Three Undersea Fiber Optic Cables Move Terabytes of Data
But how difficult is it to move huge quantities of data into and out of Iceland, a remote island nation in the far north Atlantic just below the Arctic Circle?
Iceland is less remote than it might at first seem.
Three undersea fiber-optic cables currently tie Iceland with Scotland, Norway and Nova Scotia, Canada - and provide bandwidth of about 9 terabytes per second. That is the equivalent of moving, in the snap of a finger, the entire printed collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.
Richard Curran calls that data pipe "essentially unlimited" for today's purposes. Curran, an Intel product marketing director, was on hand in April to figuratively throw the switch and help dedicate the world's first zero-emissions supercomputer. However, additional submarine cables will likely be laid over the next year, which would more than double that capacity, and allow data to flow to Iceland directly from the U.S. and the European mainland at blinding speed.
"This is a fantastic business to be in, since our society is accelerating its demands for computing power, and also increasing demands for clean power," said Advania's Einarsson.
Though they do not operate in Iceland, Google and Facebook, which run some of the world's biggest data centers, are among companies riding this trend. Both companies have built, or are expanding, massive data centers in the Pacific Northwest, where nearby hydropower keeps electricity costs among the lowest in America.
Today in Reykjavik, the Thor Data Center is crunching data for 17 separate research projects in physics, chemistry, materials science, genetics, economics and biotech.
And the work is reportedly happening at lower cost, and with lower environmental impact, than likely anywhere else on Earth.