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August 17, 2010

Behind Iceland’s Green Cloud

Nicole Hemsoth

We recently reported on the entrance of GreenQloud into the cloud space, a company which dubs itself as the “provider of the world’s first truly green public compute cloud” –a statement that, by the way, raised some hackles in the community following the announcement of its status as being first in the great green cloud frontier.

According to GreenQloud’s self-description, their IaaS cloud is “powered by 100 percent renewable geothermal and hydropower energy from Icelandic providers” There are powerful words embedded in their slogans, at least in terms of what they invoke in the environmentally-conscious user’s mind…and there is no doubt about it, this is a company that chooses its marketing lingo very carefully.

If we are to assume that GreenQloud is the first one to come up with the idea of laying claim to an Icelandic datacenter and powering it with geothermal energy, then there is something worth considering in this company’s announcement. The problem is, it’s difficult to find proof for who was the first in Iceland (or do they mean in general?), even though we can be relatively certain that unless something drastic happens (like, I don’t know, a major volcanic eruption or something equally catastrophic) that they will not be the last.

HPC in the Cloud recently conducted an email interview with GreenQloud’s CEO, Eirikur Hrafnsson about being the first in the space, energy and cost specifics, and of course, the disturbing possibilities inherent to storing one’s precious data on the same relatively small island where volcanic activity has become part of daily life.

HPCc: GreenQloud’s statement is that it is first in this niche space, but some argue that this is not the first time and other companies have pursued the same route. Do you have a proof point that what you are doing is unique and truly a first?

Hrafnsson: Although there are definitely some green web hosting companies in the world e.g. running on solar power plus carbon offsets we are 100% sure Greenqloud is the world’s first truly green public compute cloud. Truly green means we run on a 100% clean and renewable power grid. Currently Iceland is the only country in the world that can say that and we are its only cloud provider.

HPCc: How much cheaper is this model than regular electricity?

Hrafnsson:  I think you mean how much cheaper is our electricity vs. somewhere else or coal etc.

The price per kWh varies immensely over the world but energy prices are getting higher every year. With no dependency on fossil fuels we are immune to fluctuating fossil fuel prices and can get a 20 year foreseeable pricing contract that is below most prices in Europe and in the US.

That being said it’s not the cheapest because you can of course get temporarily cheap but non-sustainable energy in many parts of the world. So the energy prices are good and when you combine that with our free cooling because of the cool but tempered climate of Iceland we also get savings (less cooling cost) and better, more efficient, data centers.

HPCc: If it is cheaper then is it possible for you to pass savings on the ender user?  If not why not?

Hrafnsson:  We will pass the savings to the end user. Greenqloud is not a premium service, the cheaper energy is one of the reasons why we can do that. There are other future and present savings involved in using Greenqloud as well. Greenqloud will be the first of the clouds to transparently show everyone its total energy usage by displaying a live counter on Greenqloud.com. We then break the energy usage down for each user for any of their virtual computing resources so they can watch their energy use for their carbon accounting.

This information they can use to avoid carbon taxes and save twice. Once for not having to buy carbon credits and secondly for avoiding the taxes. Then we top our energy galore by showing the user in understandable terms how much CO2 they have saved and will save that year according to their usage. In the US it has been recently suggested that a carbon tax starting at $21 should be taken up (carbontax.org). In the UK it has already started and will be implemented full force in January 2011. And with the European Union putting a requirement of 20% reduction of Greenhouse gasses across the board, there is a great incentive to use a truly green cloud.

So being green saves you money. Another thing that saves you money e.g. is our cloud data storage. If you are a customer that needs to deliver content to both the North American market and the European market with reasonable latency by using a service like S3 for example you would think that would be as simple as putting a file into one of the AWS availability zones. What many don’t realize is that files in S3 don’t get copied across borders. Meaning you have to pay for twice if you want to reach both audiences. Iceland is right in the middle of North America and mainland Europe and with our redundant multi terabit and low latency fiber cables to both of them you only have to put your data in one place.

HPCc: What does your geothermal paradigm mean for customers in the U.S., for instance? Why is this relevant to them?

HrafnssonSee above. But to add to that…

The ICT industry is now putting out 2% of the global co2 emissions (Gartner) equal to the airline industry but is growing much faster and could be one of the biggest polluters by 2020 (McKinsey). With the current growth rate of the Internet it is clear that we cannot solve the problem simply by using more efficient hardware. We have to attack the problem at the source, the energy source. So what can the user do? Well seeing public clouds are growing 5x faster than any other sector of IT (IDC) isn’t that the best place to start? So as a user you can make a difference by choosing a truly green cloud, not just because of your usage but also because then the industry might start moving towards the energy source solution.

HPCc: How will GreenQloud compete with Amazon, Azure or Google, since you have no name branding?  Is the “power of green” enough to drive significant customer adoption?

HrafnssonHow about direct clustered storage? Infiniband network and storage fabric. Better data protection laws than anywhere else? More choice in VM sizes? Enterprise monitoring built in? And being the first public cloud to have Amazon AWS compatible API’s so you can easily scale out to Greenqloud or switch? Name branding doesn’t come over night but we are working on that and we will get there fastest through strategic partnering and by getting our eco friendly message across.

HPCc: For many firms, you’re in the category of an off-shore company, what about security, what about compliance, what about disaster recovery?  After all, Iceland has had some, shall we say, volcanic activity–so what happens if the island blows? What happens to customer data?

Hrafnsson:  Off shore can be a plus e.g. for European companies that don’t want to host in the US and vice versa. We don’t expect to get financial institutes from day one but then again that’s not just the problem of being off-shore but simply that they don’t trust public clouds yet. Legal matters will come clear before we launch but in a nutshell we have equal status with EU laws now and are about to get even better data protection laws for our clients (http://immi.is). Iceland has a lower risk index then the US and the UK.

The eruption of Eyjafjalljökull was a great 100 year test. Absolutely nothing happened to our electrical grid, inland communications or network connections to the world. The majority of data centers are built in the south west part of Iceland – in the opposite direction of prevailing wind currents so the ash barely reached those sites and even if it had we wouldn’t have had any problems with it. Furthermore we use more than one data center for data safety. Iceland is not a small island, it is a little bit smaller than England, about the same size as Kentucky. Your data is safe here.

HPCc: What about the datacenters in Arizona powered by solar or the Microsoft power via hydroelectric energy – why and how is this essentially different from what GreenQloud is doing?

Hrafnsson:  Well show me a data center 100% powered by renewable energy that can easily grow with us and I would love to make an availability zone there. You might find the list is very short to empty e.g. take a look at the Greenpeace report on the top players. According to that none of the data center in the US are 100% renewable. The fact is they use less than 15% renewables on the average and that is mostly being skewed by the few data centers in North Carolina that got to take over the bankrupt factories there and because they get very good pricing, for now.

There are, however, new datacenters being built e.g. in Scotland that claim to be 100% green and hopefully they will start to pop up everywhere! We hope to grow the brand to other locations of course but we don’t really need to because we can also partner with other clouds to become their green availability zone.

HPCc: Similar vendors often have specific market and applications they target but it’s difficult to see who your targets are, outside of those who will be swayed by the power of green. What is your market or application focus?

Hrafnsson:  North America and Europe’s public cloud customers and customers targeting those audiences. From SMB’s to Enterprises. We also intend to target the educational market by peering with high speed university networks and by offering a HPC like infrastructure and high performance. Next year we will have a few surprises up our sleeves as well. But more on that later.