Locating sustainability for high-throughput computing

Posted: 30 Mar 2020

Iceland represents an ideal site for HPC, AI and other high-throughput applications whose servers can operate
both price-competitively and 100% sustainably


Modern data centers, especially those operating high-performance computers and high-throughput applications like AI, tend to run hot and consume a lot of power. In most parts of the world, these two competing factors mean operating a data center can be both very expensive and unsustainable.

However, a few locations on the planet seem almost tailor-made for low carbon-footprint HPC, AI and other high-throughput data center operations.

Iceland’s fossil fuel-free 100% renewable electricity sources (from hydroelectric and geothermal sources) mean long-term power purchase agreements are available to local data centers with no price volatility. Advania Data Centers (ADC), one of Iceland’s top data center operators, has in fact not experienced even one second of downtime due to natural disasters in its history.

ADC’s ICE02 data center gets its power from nearby geothermal power plants in Svartsengi and Reykjanes.

The power stations reuse the excess heat from their operations to warm both buildings and, in one case, one of the world’s largest tropical fish farms.

In fact, the geothermal energy is so abundant that it also heats one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, The “Blue Lagoon” geothermal spa.

Powering — and cooling — HPC sustainably

The cooling system at ADC is specifically designed to take advantage of Iceland’s climate of moderate temperatures and dew points. The average air temperatures range from 0° C to just under 14° C, enabling significant reductions in the amount of electricity used to cool the servers in the data center.

By bringing in cool outdoor air and circulating only that natural air in the server rooms of the data center, ADC has eliminated the need for mechanical cooling from chillers or other equipment with compressors. In typical data centers, mechanical cooling systems can account for more than 50% of a data center’s power usage.

ADC’s greatly streamlined cooling efficiency can also translate to higher speeds and bigger throughputs in their hosted HPC systems’ performance. Because no precious floor space is taken up with elaborate cooling fans or liquid pumps and liquid containment systems, ADC’s clusters can boast up to 40 kW per rack. By contrast, for a data center in a warmer climate, 7 kW per rack cluster density ratings are more commonplace.

Transforming into a circular data center

With its unique power and cooling resources, ADC is working toward becoming the world’s first circular data center provider: Building and operating data centers while reusing the power and resources consumed along the way.

This philosophy is in keeping with our supplier geothermal energy parks’ “society without waste” approach to operations.

The park’s condensers are seawater cooled and each use approximately 1,600 l/s of clean seawater, filtered through lava layers and extracted from boreholes. This warm seawater is what gets recycled to enable a wide range of businesses in the close proximity of the plants — known as the Resource Park.

The Resource Park contributes directly to more than 500 jobs and provides the effluent (gas and fluid) from one company that becomes raw material for another.

So when a data center advertises its “sustainability,” it’s important to note how sustainable “sustainable” really means. Does it source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources? Are its server cooling operations equally sustainable? (And can they compete with ambient Arctic air?)

Modern data centers operating high-density server racks are often lucky to source some portion of their electricity bill from renewables. Which is why when it comes to sustainable power and cooling sources for HPC, AI and other high-throughput applications, there’s no beating a number like 100%.

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