Icebergs and iSCSI: Locating the Next Generation of Data Centers

Cloud computing is about abstracting computing resources from the user. Where the cloud meets the ground, however, is in the data center. A modern, cloud-scale data center is a very complex construct, with a wide variety of requirements. There's an interesting trend developing where these requirements can be satisfied in out-of-the-way places - specifically, the high latitude countries.

I'm sure the single largest ongoing cost of a data center is keeping the lights on and the increasingly-dense server racks or containers cool. Therefore, low energy costs are desirable. Location is another requirement, but it's surprisingly far down the list if you can provide good communications to the data center.

If you look carefully at these two requirements, there's an innovative solution. You can influence ways to make power cheap, and you can always improve communications to a location by laying more fiber, but you can't change the basic requirement of cooling server hardware against the ambient temperature. The solution? Instead of insulating and cooling the data center from the outside air, why not put the data center at high latitude and use the outside air to cool the data center? It's no different than turning off the A/C in your car in mild weather and using only the vents.  As a result, there's an emergence of data center proposals in unusual areas. A $1.5 billion dollar data center in Lockerbie, Scotland, is in the proposal stage, and the possibilities of others in the Scottish Highlands are being marketed.

At the Gartner Data Center Conference I came across a small booth from the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, to raise awareness about their potential for hosting a cloud-scale data center. You can be forgiven if you aren't sure where Newfoundland and Labrador are; nestled far up in the northeast corner of Canada against the Atlantic Ocean, this province is pretty remote (especially Labrador) and better known for the dogs named after them than for what they're doing nowadays. What makes these locations interesting for data center locations first and foremost is the climate. These are distant and cold places; the official Newfoundland and Labrador website call them "The Edge of the Earth". Though Newfoundland itself has relatively mild winters, the warmest summer day breaks 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  Indeed, the ocean from the northern tip of Labrador to the east coast of Newfoundland is known locally as "iceberg alley" because icebergs there are so common, and last for so much of the year.  These are the kinds of locations where containerized data centers can actually be open to the environment, dramatically reducing cooling costs. And both the Scottish and Atlantic Canada locations can take advantage of hydroelectric power to keep the continuing energy costs relatively low.

I think we'll be reading more about big data centers being built in unusual places. If you take a solid requirements-based look at potential locations, interesting candidates like Canada and Scotland surface to be super-scale, green hosts.

Sean writes about cloud identity, Microsoft hybrid identity, and whatever else he finds interesting at his blog on Enterprise Identity and on Twitter at @shorinsean.

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