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Could Iceland be the best place in the world for high-performance computing?

Most of Iceland’s cheap, sustainable energy is currently used by aluminium smelters, but recognising the need to diversify, the Landsvirkjun power company now promotes other uses

The case of Wirth Research illustrates a trend towards offloading high-performance computing (HPC) to Iceland. The UK engineering firm began its existence with a focus on motorsports, a passion of founder Nick Wirth.  

One of the company’s first services was to test the aerodynamics of racing cars and make adjustments accordingly. Wirth started out by using wind tunnels, which was state-of-the-art at the time. But eventually it turned towards running computer simulations, using computer-aided design (CAD) software on workstations connected to a supercomputer, where all the heavy lifting takes place. 

Over time, Wirth Research applied core competencies developed for motor sports to other markets. It now also models skyscrapers to find ways of reducing the wind load on them, and to optimise airflow so that downward currents don’t make the street below dangerous or uncomfortable for pedestrians. They also carry out work for supermarkets, analysing the flow of air out of refrigerators and installing and configuring devices on the shelves to keep the cold air in. 

The company has also helped Apple by modelling the ventilation schemes at its Cupertino campus to reduce the air-conditioning demand and encourage more natural flow. It did the same for Bloomberg’s headquarters in London. 

“Almost all of our work is about sustainability, helping our clients to save energy and reduce their carbon footprint in ways that also saves them money,” says Rob Rowsell, engineering manager at Wirth Research. “Naturally, we try to follow our own advice.

“Our main tool is computational fluid dynamics [CFD]. To get highly accurate results, you need very detailed models, which run on very big computers. Over our history, we’ve invested lots of money in developing big, sophisticated CFD models and the high-performance computers systems they run on.” 

Wirth Research’s supercomputer was already reaching end of life before Covid hit, so the company was already thinking about improving HPC before the pandemic forced everyone to work from home. The IT staff made a few modifications to allow engineers to use laptops from home and access the big systems back in the office. 

“It became obvious that our engineers didn’t have to work in the same building as the supercomputer,” says Rowsell. “I began thinking that we could build that flexibility into our new IT infrastructure. We could put the whole system wherever we liked.” 

The company considered several options, including setting up its own computer room in a cabin in a parking lot. Then it looked to Iceland. 

“If you want to know where the cheapest places for energy are, just look at where aluminium smelting takes place,” says Peter Kelly-Detwiler, energy industry expert and author of The energy switch: how companies and customers are transforming the electrical grid and the future of power. “Aluminium smelting is such a power-hungry activity that it can only be done in the most inexpensive locations.”

Read more about Nordic datacentres

“Among the locations with the cheapest and cleanest power in the world are Sweden, Quebec and Iceland. Of these three, Iceland comes out on top, because it is also 100% green and will remain that way. On top of that, Iceland has one of the most reliable grids in the world – the risk of outage is very low.” 

Kelly-Detwiler adds: “All the big companies are making promises about being green. It’s much harder to keep that promise when you have datacentres in a place like Dublin or London, where the grid still relies on large amounts of hydrocarbons. But it’s easy in Iceland, where hydropower is the main source of energy. The energy comes from rivers they have dammed up. What’s more, there is additional hydropower potential, and there is plenty of room to develop wind and geothermal power.” 

Tate Cantrell, CTO of Verne Global, a leading datacentre in Iceland, feels comfortable with his company’s future in the country. “As the datacentre business continues to grow at nearly exponential rates, we know that all the infrastructure will be powered by 100% renewable energy,” he says. “Iceland is the only country in Europe that is 100% green and will continue to be so.” 

Not only is Iceland’s energy inexpensive and completely green, but if you are performing intensive computing, you won’t need to use as much energy there. Like all Nordic countries, Iceland offers datacentres the benefits of a cool climate, which means computing equipment can be cooled by the outside air. 

Almost as important is that it never gets too cold in Iceland. Unlike other Nordic countries, Iceland benefits from being at the distal end of the Gulf Stream, which brings in warmer water to ward off the extreme cold of northern winters. Datacentres operating in very cold temperatures (minus 30-40°C) require special materials to avoid damage to equipment during harsh winters. But Iceland doesn’t have that problem – even in winter, the temperature rarely goes far below freezing. 

Connectivity to keep up with growth 

Over the last two decades, Iceland has built up the data connectivity needed to remain relevant in the internet era, with all traffic carried over three submarine cable systems – and the operators of these systems are very much aware of the needs of the growing datacentre industry. 

“The traffic for datacentres has been growing by 40% a year over the last decade, and is growing even faster now,” says Örn Orrason, vice-president of sales & business development at Farice, which operates two of the three submarine cable systems that Iceland depends on for data connectivity with the rest of the world.

One cable goes to northern Scotland and then to London, and the second goes through the North Sea, and from there down to several cities, including Amsterdam. The third submarine cable system, which is operated by Tele-Greenland, connects Iceland to Canada via Greenland. 

“The traffic for datacentres has been growing by 40% a year over the last decade, and is growing even faster now”
Örn Orrason, Farice

“Our current systems can cope with the projected traffic for many years to come,” says Orrason. “And if the projections change within three or four years, we will build a new submarine cable system in time to meet the challenge.”  

In fact, Farice is already building a new submarine cable system, which will go live in 2022. This will be a game-changer for the datacentres in Iceland, because the cable will run directly to Dublin, a huge hyperscale hub. The direct connection will put Iceland just 10 milliseconds away from most of Ireland’s datacentres, making it easier for them to offload power-intensive calculations to the smaller, more energy-efficient locations in Iceland. 

Perhaps most importantly to anyone planning to offload computing to Iceland, the country’s connectivity has proved highly reliable. Orrason adds: “Over the last 18 years of Farice’s operation, Iceland has never lost connectivity. The submarine cables have never had a fault in the wet section. That is thanks to good design and a protective legal environment.”  

Intensive computing outsourced to Iceland 

For all its virtues, Iceland would not be the best place to host just any kind of application. Although the latency is excellent, it isn’t as good as what you would get with a datacentre closer to the clients it serves. And the scale of operations in Iceland can’t compete with some of the bigger hubs, such as Dublin, which has enough capacity to meet the needs of customers such as Facebook and Google. 

“You certainly wouldn’t want to centralise a system such as one controlling autonomous vehicles, that makes a decision in real time to help avoid accidents at an intersection,” says Verne Global’s  Cantrell. “But there is another aspect of autonomous vehicles that can very much benefit from Iceland’s datacentres – the process of training neural networks that make the decisions in cars, a process that is very compute-intensive.” 

The same goes for financial services. Trading systems, in which a lot of data is exchanged and only the smallest latency can be tolerated, would not be well served by Icelandic datacentres – but large simulations that are run to help finance companies make strategic decisions are suitable. Iceland may not be the best choice for general-purpose datacentres, but it is the best for HPC, including all the compute that goes into training artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms.  

“Our focus at Verne Global is on what we call ‘high-intensity computing’, which includes HPC and AI,” says Cantrell. “Our customers range from financial services companies to pure science plays, to manufacturing and engineering. BMW and Volkswagen are probably our most recognised clients.

“By moving our HPC to Iceland, we ended up with a system that does all the things we need to do, plus a bit more”
Rob Rowsell, Wirth Research

“BMW announced that everything that went into its i-series cars would be powered by sustainable energy. This includes datacentres where they run HPC applications, such as crash test simulations. BMW began using our services and has publicly stated that we saved it 82% on power costs.” 

Verne Global’s focus on very specific niches could work out very well in the coming years. The cable to join Icelandic datacentres with the hub of hyperscale datacentres in Dublin will make it very easy for Irish datacentres to partner with niche datacentres in Iceland. They can run general applications in Dublin, and then outsource the compute-intensive work to Iceland, where the costs are much lower and only sustainable energy is used.  

“We are seeing that trend already and we expect it to build up steam for several years ahead,” says Cantrell. “This kind of partnership is a natural part of business cycles – we’ve seen it, for example, with call centres or with manufacturing. Once the store front is established, you can outsource certain well-defined activities to lower-cost locations.” 

HPC as a managed service 

In its quest to make its computing power location-independent, Wirth Research did consider using a cloud provider, but the prices were an order of magnitude more expensive. “In the end, we decided on a different arrangement,” says Rowsell. “We lease the equipment for our sole use and have it managed at the Verne Global datacentre.

“Verne financed the equipment for us, and we pay them a monthly fee, which also includes rental of the space, kilowatts, and staff to check the lights and reboot when necessary. If you add up everything we pay for today, it comes to less than our electricity bill two years ago.” 

Rowsell adds: “By moving our HPC to Iceland, we ended up with a system that does all the things we need to do, plus a bit more. We also gained flexibility for our engineers working from home. We got all that with about 20% of our previous energy footprint.” 

Wirth Research’s engineers, who use CAD to manipulate 3D objects on their screens, turning them around and interrogating them, are happy with the new setup. They say it feels like the processing is happening in a graphics card on their desk, when it’s really on a graphics card in a computer in Iceland – and the same card is shared with colleagues. 

But if anyone has any doubt about where the processing is really taking place, they need only take a three-hour flight from London to see for themselves. A trip to Iceland is always worthwhile – and a visit to the datacentres there will leave them convinced that something big is in the works. 

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