Arctic Steampunk: The New Age of Cold Weather Data Infrastructure

by Scott Smith

Exploring Arctic and near-Arctic solutions to global demand for faster, cheaper and more sustainable data storage and computing infrastructure.

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Even as miles physically travelled are decreasing globally, the ability to generate a different kind of traffic—from data—is starting to shape geography in ways not usually associated with virtual worlds. Digital flows require physical infrastructure in the form of power hungry data centres and network links. Telecoms and major data hoarders from Silicon Valley and beyond, seeking to base and manage the enormous resources that this requires, have begun looking north for solutions. The move is only in its early stages, but pressing issues such as energy costs, emissions control, or the impact of geopolitics and sovereign politics on data network controls and regulation may soon accelerate the shift to colder climes.

 

Google’s Hamina Project

Google was an early mover in 2009 when it announced its purchase of a mothballed facility in Hamina, Finland, a paper mill originally built by Stora Enso in 1953. The  €200 million purchase seemed an odd fit for a digital company. Google, with its near-supranational grip on data, is no stranger to technologically and politically innovative approaches to data storage, having previously patented the design for floating, wave-powered data center.[1] A paper mill seemed almost retrograde – steampunk – by comparison.

There were two reasons for the Hamina acquisition. One was the mill’s location on the Gulf of Finland in the eastern Baltic Sea, a critical location along networking routes in northeastern Europe near the tech capital of the region, Helsinki. The other was one of the facility’s less obvious features, a tunnel below it which carries chilled seawater from the Baltic.  One of the main liabilities of large-scale data storage is that it takes a lot of energy to manage the heat generated by hundreds of servers and storage arrays. At the Hamina facility, Google could test new ways to cool its servers using easily accessible Arctic waters.  

Google’s Hamina project provided a substantial early test of sea-cooled data centre design.  Global data giants need to be able to pack more servers into the sprawling infrastructure they need to feed the ravenous appetites of a surging global Internet user base. Locating data centres in colder climates and using naturally occurring coolant is one way to manage the challenge Jonathan Koomey of Stanford University estimated electricity consumption by data centres accounted for 1.5% of all global electricity demand in 2010.[2] With Internet demand running neck-and-neck with power-saving innovations in server design, Google and others have turned to these new environmental fixes to manage the forecast growth in data centre demand and accompanying energy costs.

 

Greener data

Other companies are following Google’s lead, looking further and further north to build new data infrastructure. In 2011, Facebook opened a data centre in Luleå, Sweden, just 100 km south of the Arctic Circle. Again, the beneficial ambient temperature was a draw, averaging around 2℃ annually. Like Google, Facebook is also making use of water resources, drawing hydropower from the nearby Lule River, which the Swedes claim generates more power than the Hoover Dam, much of it exported. Facebook is able to draw off that excess power generation, presumably at favorable rates and, no doubt, reaping additional economic dividends from its cold weather strategy. As with a number of other companies using, newer data centres, Facebook is tapping renewable energy, giving the business a comfortable “green” veneer, and smoothing out the normally erratic energy costs associated with conventional sources of electrical power.

Like any good economic development authority, Business Sweden has seen the benefit of its own northern geography and resources, and is actively touting its available stock of commercially convertible facilities. Listed on its website are several dozen possible locations, described as “greenfield sites available with short notice,” “data centre facilities ready to use,” and “former military rock shelters for sale for extra high security.”[3] It also helpfully provides temperature data, available power, connectivity, cooling and waste resources, and even goes so far as to market underground facilities equipped for “high security against burglary, fire and water damage.”

Iceland has also begun to attract attention, for similar reasons. Its mid-Atlantic location, access to green power sources and available IT skills have drawn entities like IT services company Verne Global to invest in local development, putting an 18-hectare data centre on a former NATO air base at Keflavik, near Reykjavik. The company has locked in long-term contracts for low-emission power, which it is marketing to US and European companies as a “green” cloud computing option, which high profile companies such as BMW have already bought into.

 

No latency, no snooping

Building near-Arctic data infrastructure may generate additional economic and political benefits. Increases in sea ice melt have opened Arctic sea-lanes, and with them the opportunity to lay high capacity undersea data cable along one of the few routes that hasn’t yet been exploited. With current international network pathways, information packets from Europe often have to transit North America to get to Asia, and vice versa, or pass through longer, more circuitous undersea or overland routes. Telecom analysts Telegeography report that a handful of shorter trans-Arctic lines are in the works. In an age when companies are moving earth to shorten trading interactions by milliseconds, all in an effort to squeeze more profit out of time-sensitive financial transactions, this is critical.[4] One proposed route would travel from Akureyri, on Iceland’s northern coast, via Longyearbyen in Svalbard, under the Arctic Sea to Murmansk, Russia, and along Siberia’s northern coastline to either wrap around in a southerly direction toward Japan or branch eastward to Alaska.[5]

New market connectivity suggests positive economic opportunities. But there is a down side that comes from allowing data to transit jurisdictions where concerns about government and private surveillance are more acute.  Where data is ultimately stored and what routes it takes to get to where it needs to be makes a difference, issues that researchers Smári McCarthy and Eleanor Saitta highlight in a 2012 report on Iceland for the International Modern Media Institute, “Islands of Resilience.”[6] McCarthy and Saitta point out that data centre providers face a laundry list of risks, including “intermediary liability, hosting liability, state and corporate surveillance, state and corporate censorship, the accessibility of and cost of interacting with courts, corruption, and socioeconomic stability.” Iceland has clean power, connectivity and political stability on its side, but presents the same eavesdropping and privacy issues present in the rest of the EU, “which make it less attractive for hosting than countries where communications are not monitored.”

Arctic talk has been dominated by traditional geopolitics, with its focus on maritime defence, boundary delimitation and shipping interests, and potential access to previously untapped natural resources.  But the issues are clearly more complex, ranging as widely as green power generation, labor costs and state surveillance of new data hubs. The push for faster, cheaper data storage and transmission may well run headlong into concerns about network governance and data privacy somewhere in the cold northern climes of the Arctic Circle. One can imagine Google one day soon choosing to exercise its patented data barges, sailing them into newly ice-free international waters in response to a perfect storm of regional demand and political tension. While these demands aren’t likely drive a mass human migration to the region, the earthmovers are already arriving for a new kind of data migration, which will put an odd mixture of fund traders, media pirates and environmentalists on the same side of the issue. 

 

NOTES


[1] Rich Miller, “Google Gets Patent for Data Center Barges,” Data Center Knowledge, April 29, 2009. URL: https://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2009/04/29/google-gets-patent-for-data-center-barges/

[2] Jonathan Koomey, “Growth in Data Centre Electricity Use 2005 to 2010,” (Oakland, CA: Analytics Press, August 1, 2011) URL: http://www.analyticspress.com/datacentres.html

[3] Business Sweden. URL: http://www.business-sweden.se/en/Invest/Industry-Opportunities/ICT/Data-Centers-in-Sweden/Available-Data-Center-sites/

[4] “Submarine Cable Construction Continues Despite Untapped Potential Capacity,” Telegeography, April 18, 2012, URL: http://www.telegeography.com/products/commsupdate/articles/2012/04/18/submarine-cable-construction-continues-despite-untapped-potential-capacity/

[5] Smari McCarthy and Eleanor Saitta, “Islands of Resilience,” International Modern Media Institute, 2012, URL: http://islandsofresilience.eu/.

[6] Smari McCarthy and Eleanor Saitta, “Islands of Resilience,” International Modern Media Institute, 2012, URL: http://islandsofresilience.eu/.

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About the Author: Scott Smith writes regularly for Current Intelligence on disruptive technology and innovation in emerging markets. He is founder of Changeist, a futures research lab.

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