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Photo: Thomas Hagen; Illustration: Lefdal

Green Data Centers

The Hidden Data Habitat

An abandoned mine, a deserted military base, a former bunker: data center operators are becoming increasingly creative with their ideas for storing ever-expanding amounts of data. To be successful, it is particularly important that operators gain users’ trust
that their data is safe and secure.

 Text Joscha Duhme

Between the islands of Husevågøy and Vågsøy in western Norway lies the mouth of the Vågsfjord fjord. While it seems at first like a spot for a romantic cruise, this fjord offers much more than just picturesque scenery for tourism ads. It functions as a refrigerator for the Lefdal Mine Datacenter (LMD), one of the world’s most ambitious data center projects. It is cooled with seawater, which, even in summer, rarely reaches temperatures above 17 degrees Celsius, making LMD an example of one of the most innovative solutions in a sector growing by leaps and bounds. In the era of cloud computing and high-speed internet connections, many operators are banking on environmentally friendly solutions for IT data centers. A high level of environmental consciousness isn’t the only factor at play here, because the main reasons are economic: electricity is a major cost consideration for all data centers. Locating facilities in regions with inexpensive electricity—and using economical technologies and efficient energy—thus quickly pays off. From the outside, LMD, which is currently under construction, is nearly invisible. It’s being developed deep beneath the earth in a former mine. The shafts where precious minerals were once excavated will soon be housing and processing data, the raw material of the future. The surrounding bedrock guarantees protection against electromagnetic pulses. The five-story system of tunnels offers 120,000 square meters of surface area for infrastructure, which, when completed, will use up to 100 megawatts of energy. “It is said that big is beautiful,” says LMD Chairman of the Board Egil Skibenes. “And the Lefdal Mine is very, very, very big.”

 

 

LUCRATIVE BUSINESS

The fact of the matter is that the world around us is changing ever more rapidly than before. One of the reasons for these changes is digitization, with the increasing importance of big data—enormous amounts of information—mobile data utilization and the ensuing shift of contents and applications into what’s known as the cloud. Day after day, billions of gigabytes of data are generated around the world, the growth of which is exponential. Ninety percent of the data currently being stored worldwide was created over the past two years. Forecasts indicate that global data volumes are doubling about every eighteen months. “We see the need for sixty new large data centers in Europe by 2020 alone,” Skibenes says. It’s a simple calculation for the LMD operators: if the physical location of data storage is becoming ever less important, it makes sense to build in particularly inexpensive areas. This means away from urbanized zones and metropolises, where land is expensive, and toward the affordable outskirts, into regions with an overabundance of low-cost energy, and, ideally, using already available infrastructure. All these locational advantages come together on Norway’s west coast. “In comparison with a data center built aboveground, the costs are halved,” Skibenes notes. If the fully developed LMD went online today, the energy costs would run about 150 million euros. An equivalent facility in Germany would cost 300 million euros, in Great Britain perhaps 500 million.

CLIMATE ADVANTAGE

Norway’s government is also playing a role, as it recognizes that facilities like LMD offer an opportunity to become a leading global player in the field of data centers and data processing. “We produce more energy than we need, even though we rely solely on renewable energies,” says Norway’s Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tord Lien. “And our climate offers the best conditions for natural cooling techniques.” "

British company Verne Global has also been won over by the advantages of the far north. Its 180,000-square-meter data center campus is located in Keflavík, Iceland, on a former NATO naval air base. “With average temperatures between 3 and 14 degrees Celsius, Iceland has ideal conditions for data centers,” says Verne Global Marketing Director Birgit Kneschke. The cool Icelandic climate enables nearly completely cost-free cooling of the facility. The data center is connected to the European mainland by an undersea fiber-optic cable.

At the Naval Air Station

Photo: Fred Rollison

At the Naval Air Station

Verne Global’s data center campus, with a surface area of 180,000 square meters, is located west of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, just minutes away from Keflavík International Airport. The entire campus is supplied with 100-percent renewable energy and completely cooled by Iceland’s naturally cool climate. But it is as hot beneath the ground as it is chilly at the surface—as demonstrated by the billowing steam behind the data center buildings. Keflavík is one of many highly active geothermal areas on the island. The hot water is used for energy, but also for leisure, as at the Blue Lagoon’s open-air thermal baths.

 

To the Countryside?

Are data centers like the facilities on Vågsfjord or in Keflavík thus the solution and the silver bullet for the data centers of the future, whose demands for energy and storage space for vast amounts of data will only continue to increase? Marko Hoffmann, team leader for new media at TÜV SÜD’s Sec-IT Department has a rather cautious outlook despite the many advantages. “I believe that these cases actually represent showcase projects,” he says. “A great deal must come together to solve the problems of data center availability, efficiency and security.” That is to say, environmental friendliness and low costs are merely two from among a whole series of decisive criteria.

Planning, construction and operations for the large-scale facilities in Norway and Iceland are particularly low-priced due to the climatic, geographic and geological conditions. What remains crucial for their later use, however, is confidence in the security of the data. The idea of trusting sensitive company data to a service provider thousands of kilometers away may perhaps send shivers up and down the spines of a majority of IT experts.

Data center operators promise the highest levels of security and point specifically to the remote location of their facilities—far from electromagnetic effects and big cities. “But the actual location of data storage is highly sensitive information for many customers,” says Marko Hoffmann. “For many companies with a high degree of consciousness about data security, it’s often important that the data be stored in their own country.” Small and medium-sized businesses, in particular, are more likely to rely on regional data centers, or on their own solutions, whereby the data remains in-house.

Take Munich, for instance: in the middle of the state capital, the district of Upper Bavaria is building a new data center in a former underground bunker. TÜV SÜD has been assisting since the planning phase and has optimized many features, the energy efficiency in particular. With no cool fjord water and only limited regenerative energy sources, operating costs must be lowered by improving efficiency.

Thomas Grüschow, TÜV SÜD data center specialist

"Deploying modern, efficient technology and heat-tolerant IT devices—these are core elements of environmental friendliness and sustainability for data centers."

A Question of Temperature

Thomas Grüschow is a data center specialist at TÜV SÜD and ran the project. He views himself as a pioneer—even ecologically. “Anyone who cools their facilities with water directly from the natural cycle may have chosen a cost-effective solution,” he says, “but whether or not this is actually ecologically sustainable for our planet is debatable.” Mega data centers like the LMD would heat up the fjord, which, in turn, reduces the oxygen content of the water.

Grüschow therefore welcomes new ideas for cooling and regenerative energy supplies in suitable regions of the world, but sees the future of new data repositories taking a different approach: “The technology must be further refined so that it can be run even more energy-efficiently than today.” Specifically this means that servers must be able to deal with higher temperatures and energy loss must be reduced.

Current developments confirm the impact of this approach. While data centers used to need to be cooled to 18 degrees Celsius, they can now withstand more than 23 degrees. “Deploying modern, efficient technology and heat-tolerant IT devices,” Grüschow says, “these are core elements of environmental friendliness and sustainability for data centers. And not alleged advantages such as exploiting cooling with water from the natural cycle without knowing the long-term environmental impacts.”

And so it seems as if there are ultimately two opposing alternatives that will influence data centers of the future: the international and the local. Yet this doesn’t mean in the end that one necessarily precludes the other; instead, they are much more likely to complement one another. While highly sensitive data is better stored on location or close to a company due to security concerns, localization isn’t necessary for the bulk of global data. Most could therefore be stored anywhere around the world, provided that people’s confidence in this systematization isn’t undermined in some way.

Then again, what unites these two variations is the pursuit of a continually better ecological balance. Even nine years ago, the Internet was already emitting as much carbon dioxide as the aviation sector. The amounts of data will continue to grow in our society and, with them, the costs. Ultimately, the greatest challenge is ensuring the data triad of efficiency, carbon neutrality and security.

In a Bunker

Photo: Bayerische Vermessungsverwaltung

In a Bunker

In the center of Munich, a high-availability data center was set up in the basement of an office building in the 1970s. A portion of the basement was constructed to serve as a bunker. The utilization of both free cooling and highly efficient pumps ensures low energy use.