Iceland should be the clean, green future of datacentres. So why aren't more firms going there?

Iceland should be the clean, green future of datacentres. So why aren't more firms going there?

Summary: Amazon is unlikely to build a datacentre in Iceland, but others think the country and other remote Scandinavian locations could become the Clydesdale horses of cloud computing

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TOPICS: Data Centers
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Having a datacentre in clean, green places like Finland and Sweden already makes sense to tech heavyweights like Google and Facebook - but don't expect a mass migration to the north.

While there have been calls recently for Microsoft, Apple and Amazon to move all their data centres to Iceland, often touted by Greenpeace as a low carbon output location compared to the US, seemingly addicted to using dirty energy sources.

The main problem with the theory that companies like Amazon can reduce carbon emissions by simply migrating datacentres to, say, Iceland is the "cruel realities of the speed of light" or latency, according to James Hamilton, Amazon Web Service's distinguished engineer.

The problem for companies like Google and Amazon is that users hate latency -- and revenue depends on users.

Hamilton points in his blog to tests that Google ran in 2008, which showed an increase in search-result latency from 0.4 second to 0.9 seconds translated into a 20 per cent drop in traffic.

The emergence of content distribution networks like Akamai illustrate how sensitive people are to latency, especially in the cases of gaming networks and stock trading platforms.

"They have miniature 'datacentres' not only per metro area, but inside individual ISPs operating in the same geographical areas in order to shave off the most amount of microseconds between them and the end users," Tore Anderson, network and infrastructure manager at Swedish open source outfit Redpill Linpro tells Norse Code.

Iceland out of the picture

For that reason, Matthew Prince, CEO of content distribution network CloudFlare, tells Norse Code that while Stockholm is on its agenda in the very near future -- to serve the Baltics and the rest of Scandinavia -- Iceland is well off.

"Putting a CloudFlare node in Iceland, for example, would likely be a bad idea. Even if the power were cheap, routing traffic out to the island and then back would introduce a significant amount of latency. For us, that's critical."

"While CloudFlare is concerned with being environmentally sensitive, and, specifically, we significantly decrease load on our customers servers making them more efficient and decreasing their energy use, our datacentre location choices are driven first by minimising latency and, only after we've optimised for that, do we choose facilities in order to minimise their power requirements."

So with this endless lust for speed, how can places like Iceland, home to Verne Global's Colt datacentre powered by 100 per cent green energy, play a part in solving the cloud's carbon output woes?

Anderson and Prince agree the answer is to push all the high-compute, latency-insensitive workloads northwards.

Large clusters of scientific data from places like CERN's Large Hadron Collider or seismic data from North Sea oil companies would be ideal, says Anderson. However, bandwidth could be a problem, he adds.

Prince meanwhile points to video rendering or large scale simulations, which need a "ton of compute resources" but aren't latency sensitive.

So it's probably going to remain a niche market for very specific types of data processing that perhaps consumers won't experience first hand, but Anderson argues Iceland should become a default.

"Essentially what makes sense, in my opinion, is to put the workload in Iceland if you can, but in NYC if you must."

Topic: Data Centers

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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8 comments
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  • Do you REALLY need to go to Iceland to go green?

    Do you REALLY need to go to Iceland to go green?

    Seriously, what's the big deal about it?

    It's not as it there's no green energy in other nations. The USA itself is starting to see an increase in stuff like wind energy. I'm sure if you're careful you can go green in most places. No, you shouldn't have to go to Iceland to go green.
    CobraA1
    • Cold Weather

      That's a good question.
      I'm not familiar with the geography of Iceland,
      but I'd guess the year-round abundance of already cool-air, standing cold water, and the fact that Iceland was ran mostly on renewable energy already (like, 60% -ish).
      ..which makes sense with all their geysers and stuff for geotherm.
      NexusSloth
    • Cheap geothermal because Iceland basically sits on a bunch

      of volcanoes. Which can be a Bad Thing, if they decide to act up.

      But seriously, if Iceland is so energy wonderful, why not build massive power lines from it to the rest of the world? Oh. Wait. Because long distance power transmission is inefficient. So instead, let's build wind farms and solar farms hundreds of miles from nowhere and ship the power...oh. wait.
      baggins_z
    • I think my original argument still stands

      I think my original argument still stands - Iceleand may have green energy, but they don't have a monopoly on it. Green energy can be found elsewhere.
      CobraA1
      • I totally agree

        I totally agree with you there.

        I think this is just people proposing what could be a good idea without considering all the implied problems (ex: distance).

        It would be neat to have Iceland saturated with datacenters, though.
        NexusSloth
      • Not really

        Hydro? Right. Try getting a dam built anywhere in the U.S. today. Geothermal? Yeah, right. Our richest geothermal spot is Yellowstone. Just try and get that developed. Solar? Forget it. There isn't enough sunlight hitting the earth to make it a practical alternative. OK. I will give solar this. IF you can get solar panels 20% efficient and the cost of roofing tiles, then solar is good for low-power supplemental local generation (like homes). Of course, you'll still need a grid because sunlight is not 24x7 (and, no, chemical batteries are not a green way to store energy. Take a look at what chemicals and processes go into making a battery).

        Here's the unpleasant truth. The second law of thermodynamics states that you will NEVER get an energy source that doesn't produce unwanted byproducts. So what, responsible, mature adults grounded in reality do is find ways to properly identify waste (hint: carbon dioxide is plant food, not a pollutant) and then find ways to properly dispose of it.
        baggins_z
    • about latency

      Iceland is not so far off. In reality 15 msec is the latency from Reykjavik to Copenhagen is only 15 msec ( 0,015 sec) and 18 msec to London and Amsterdam. The article mentiones a problem when going from 0,4 sec to 0,9 sec for an application. Iceland is a porblem for fast financial trading which is a known fact. For about 75-80% of the appliations locating in Iceland is not a problem and there is already a good experience of using Iceland for many applications.
      Örn Orrason
  • The best way to conserve energy...

    is to switch over all data centers to an operating system with lightweight threads. This would significantly cut down on the amount of memory needed (and therefore the number of computers), halving the electricity needs without having to do a darned thing...
    Tony Burzio