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Page last updated at 15:31 GMT, Friday, 9 October 2009 16:31 UK

Iceland looks to serve the world

Iceland skyline
The natural climate of Iceland could be used to reduce carbon emissions

By Simon Hancock
BBC Click

Since the financial crisis, Iceland has been forced to retreat back from high octane bubble living to nature.

Fortunately, there is a lot of that nature to retreat to.

It is a breathtaking world of volcanoes, endless prairies and ethereal winter landscapes.

Not, you might think, the most obvious place to stick millions of the world's computer servers which are, for all their uses, rather less attractive.

But the country now wants exactly that - to become home to the world's computing power.

Behind all the large internet companies lurk massive and ever growing data centres chock full of servers churning away.

Google for instance is thought to have around a million of the things, but even less IT intensive operations, banks for example, need hundreds of thousands of servers to store all their data.

Thermal image of a computer
Up to 60% extra energy is required to cool computer servers in the UK

The problem is that while these computers look innocuous, they use a lot of energy.

There is of course the power you need for the servers themselves, but almost as significant is the energy used to keep them cool.

"For every watt that is spent running servers," says Dr Brad Karp, of University College London, "the best enterprises most careful about minimising the energy of cooling and maximising efficiency typically find they are spending 40-60% extra energy on just cooling them."

Cold rush

In Iceland, with its year round cool climate and chilly fresh water, just a fraction of this energy for cooling is needed. It means big savings.

Just outside Reykjavik, work is well advanced on the first site which its owners hope will spark a server cold rush.

In around a year - if all goes according to plan - the first companies will start leasing space in this data centre.

And if this proves successful more sites are planned.

The company expects demand to be huge because as the number of servers around the world grows, a big environmental cloud is looming - all that energy use means an increase in CO2 production.

Iceland has far more power than it can domestically use.

"The data centre industry now is on par with the airline industry as far as the carbon footprint," says Jeff Monroe, head of Verne Global - a data centre company working in Iceland.

Jeff Monroe
A company would save greater than half a million metric tons of carbon annually
Jeff Monroe, CEO of Verne Global

"But, if you think about the growth of those two industries, the growth of the data centre industry is exponentially greater than the airline industry.

"The two are going to cross and we think that - just like the legislation that was passed in the UK concerning carbon footprint and power utilisation - it is going to be a growing concern across the industry."

So data centres are already producing as much CO2 as airlines.

While it has been below the radar until now, Verne Global thinks that with cloud computing on the rise, the carbon footprint of the digital world will soon become "unacceptably high".

And this is where Iceland's natural resources really come into their own.

Enormous savings

The volcanic forces which shaped the landscape have also gifted the country masses of geothermal power - 100% of the country's electricity is renewable and basically carbon free, much generated from water heated far below the ground.

Mr Monroe explains what would happen if a company moved its data centre to Iceland.

"The carbon savings would be enormous.

Icelandic power station
All of Iceland's electricity is renewable and basically carbon free

"For example, if a large internet media company operating thousands and thousands of servers relocated its servers to Iceland, that company would save greater than half a million metric tons of carbon annually."

So you have the cooler climate and an abundance of green energy.

But you would not want to move your previous data centre to what is effectively the middle of nowhere unless it had some good connections.

Iceland has been busying itself laying fibre optic cables to connect the country with North America and Europe.

The cables coming in provide a capacity of more than five terabits/sec - all with server farms in mind.

Travelling down this pipe, data sited in Iceland is just 17 milliseconds from London. Sitting at home on YouTube you would never know, but even that is too slow for some.

Big industry

Gudmundur Gunnarsson, head of communications company Farice, explains some of the problems.

"There are very sensitive financial services that cannot even go outside the M25 in London", he says.

"So everything has to be within that circle, but for approximately at least 70% of other traffic, this delay is more than satisfactory."

Even where speed is not an issue however, the allure of Iceland is not for everyone.

Companies will have to overcome their natural server-hugging tendencies, and some may harbour security fears of storing their data remotely.

But having been through the financial mill Iceland hopes and believes in the next five to 10 years this will be one of its biggest industries.

And, in an irony not lost on a country brought to its knees by finance, one early customer rumoured to have signed a deal to move servers here is - well who else - one of America's biggest investment banks.



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