A Cool Place for Cheap Flops

By Robert Gelber

April 11, 2012

Supercomputers are notoriously expensive, but even after the machine is bought and paid for, power costs continue to add up. The fastest 10 supercomputers on the TOP500 list together consume more than 45MW every hour, roughly the same amount of energy that four US homes will consume in one year. At about $1 million per megawatt per year, annual power costs for these elite supers is similar to the budget for a small city.

Iceland, though, has the potential to provide some relief. The small island nation in the North Atlantic could offer cheap power for these energy-sucking datacenters. Lucas Laursen of Technology Review talked about the country’s efforts to bring more revenue into their economy.

“Iceland produces more electricity per capita than any other country in the world. Nearly all its power is renewable, coming from either glacier-fed rivers or steaming geothermal vents. And it’s cheap, too.”

The going rate for electricity in Iceland is around 4.3 cents per KW-hour, which is almost half the rate in the U.S. The Icelandic government has created plans to double energy capacity, but its geographic location in the middle of the North Atlantic makes it difficult to export power into the European grid.

Around 80 percent of the country’s power is used to smelt aluminum, but local environmentalists are opposing further growth of that industry. This unique situation has created a niche market, offering energy to the power-hungry tech industry.

Last year, Denmark, Norway and Sweden partnered to build a supercomputer in Iceland. Researchers from the three countries looked to discover challenges from a jointly procured and administered research facility. The collaboration also placed a priority on improving the price-performance of the HPC research.

Another example comes from Verne Global, a company based in Keflavic, Iceland. Earlier this year, the company converted a former NATO base into a server farm, pitching their services as “100% renewable.” There are more datacenter installations in the country as the government hopes it will become a growing trend.

Although Iceland could eventually export power, it would cost roughly two billion euros and take around a decade to plan. In contrast, the country is already wired up for long-distance computing. Optical fiber links to North America, Scotland and Denmark are in place today, with further network enhancements on the horizon.

That kind of connectivity is helpful, but not perfect. Laursen notes that the minimum ping time from Iceland to New York is 36 milliseconds. This means that low-latency applications, like high speed trading would not be practical.  But for straight-up HPC and generic enterprise computing, it’s usually not an issue.

Takeaway

The demand for faster performance from supercomputing systems has resulted in construction of increasingly larger machines, with the associated escalation of power and cooling costs. Iceland’s abundance of cheap and renewable energy could make the country a preferred spot for HPC colocation.

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