Iceland's bitcoin mining data centres are maturing into phase two

We've all heard that 'data is the new oil'. But while data may be the invisible magic powering the information age, it doesn't have any actual energy-creating properties (Until we discover a way to alchemise electricity from Twitter-induced rage, that is.)

To create, store and process this continually streaming ephemera, physical infrastructure such as data centres are still required, and they need energy to keep running - making the oil analogy sadly redundant in practical terms.

Data centres have so far evaded the type of public lampooning faced by the more visibly polluting industries, but with the world's ever-ramping requirement for computing power, their energy demand is only set to soar.

At present, data centres account for roughly one percent of global electricity demand. The entire ICT ecosystem (encompassing mobile phones, network infrastructure and digital devices) creates two percent of the global carbon emissions - the same as the aviation industry's emissions from fuel. Given that the world still runs predominantly on fossil fuel, this is a huge problem.

The world is facing a climate emergency of unpredictably dire proportions and populations are beginning to wake up and challenge the unchecked polluting of industries and conglomerates. Against this backdrop, it's particularly galling that what many consider a gratuitous energy consumer is still gobbling up so much. We're talking, of course, about cryptocurrency mining. It was widely reported that at its peak, bitcoin mining was absorbing the same amount of energy as the entirety of Denmark.

Etix Everywhere from Luxembourg is one such company catering to these energy and computational demands, and has set up data centres in a number of locations across the world. Last week Computerworld UK visited the most recently completed in Blönduós, Iceland - a facility that's entirely powered by a nearby hydro plant.

The hydropower plant that powers Etix's data centre

The nearby hydropower plant that powers Etix's data centre

Iceland has proved an in-demand location for data centres given its almost entirely renewable, and exceedingly cheap, energy supply. It's also naturally chilly, removing the need for additional cooling equipment, an expenditure that typically accounts for a large part of the data centre energy drain.

Since 2014, data centres particularly focused on facilitating the processing of cryptocurrency and blockchain use cases have been tempted over to Iceland. Demand has soared so rapidly that the established facilities currently use more energy than all of the homes of Iceland's approximately 340,000 residents combined. "If all these projects are realised, we won't have enough energy for it," Johann Snorri Sigurbergsson, spokesman for Icelandic energy firm HS Orka, told the BBC in 2018.

Phase two

However, Etix Everywhere is one of a new crop of arrivals that specialise in facilitating cryptocurrencies, and the company only see this as 'phase one'.

Outside of Iceland the majority of Etix Everywhere's customers are big banks, IT companies and insurance firms, according to the vendor's CEO Antoine Boniface. He foresees an increasing proportion of custom coming from blockchain applications over crypto mining.

High performance computing (HPC) is another speculated growth area, catering to the demands of burgeoning areas like IoT and self-driving vehicles. The company's strategy is geared towards protecting against the inherent volatility of the cryptocurrency market - weathering the dizzying swings in the value of bitcoin, for example.

"All our customers have to be either a public company, or a very well under-written company to make sure they're not going to disappear in two years," Boniface told Computerworld UK - before adding that if there is another crypto crunch, the company has to make sure it won't be impacted.

According to Boniface, the company only signs up tenants on long-term five or ten year contracts. Some commentators say that this is also driven by the government of Iceland, which wishes to avoid an over-dependence on crypto. This circumspection seems implicit in Etix's business model, although the firm doesn't say specifically that it's at the behest of Iceland's government.

Etix's data centre

The fluidity of the data centre's design can easily accommodate this shift. For the first phase they have a series of shelves, but these will be one day replaced by racks. "They are not the same kind of servers, they are not square [like those for crypto mining], they are normal rectangular servers," says Boniface. "But it's exactly the same design." The Blönduós facility houses 25,000 servers and has 37 MW capacity.

Green data

Massive cloud and infrastructure providers face increasing scrutiny for the green credentials of their data centres. Google and Apple already claim to be running on 100 percent renewable energy, however the extent to which this is true has been contested.

This energy is sometimes produced directly - through data centres hooked up to wind farms in Ohio for example. However, sometimes these companies make the quotient up by purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs), which are certificates showing that an energy company has generated renewable power and supplied it to the grid. These can act as a 'get out of jail free' card but don't necessarily contribute to fewer fossil fuels being burned. Factoring in these considerations, the true renewable quotient is probably likely to hover around the 65 percent mark.

One measure of the efficiency of a data centre is Power Usage Efficiency (PUE). This is the energy required for everything including lights and cooling, divided by the energy required for computing, meaning that a PUE of 1.0 would be a perfect score.

Conventional data centres have a PUE of about 2.0, while for more modern hyperscale facilities it is around 1.2 (although Google has claimed to have an average of 1.13 across its facilities). According to Etix, its new data centre has a PUE of 1.03. This is in spite of the increased density per rack required by HPC - about 50 kilowatts of load compared to the normal 3-10 kilowatts. In a conventional data centre, cooling can eat up close to 40 percent of the energy bill.

However, the heat expelled by data centres in these climes can also be a worry when attempting to maintain the ecology of the surrounding area.

In other locations, data centres have been challenged to repurpose this air. For example, an IBM data centre in Switzerland warms a nearby swimming pool. However, given the rate of heat decay this can be challenging unless the target facility is right next to the data centre. In the case of Etix, the company says it is still thinking about it, but is considering the idea of greenhouses located near the facility.

Boniface says that although the company has no obligation to build renewable data centres, they like to do so. However, it has to make business sense. The firm currently runs another solely hydro-powered data centre in Sweden, and has built a solar farm to power another in Ghana.

"In Ghana, we could have done the same as everyone else and just burned fuel with our generators, because the grid is quite poor," says Boniface, "but no, we have invested a lot to deploy our own solar plan."

However, this was informed by cost too, given the higher price of energy than places like Iceland. "We did our maths and it made so much sense to be green and to have our own solar farm," adds Boniface.

Iceland's bottleneck

Iceland has many attractive qualities as a locale for data centres, however there is another reason that it's particularly blockchain and crypto companies that are interested in the country.

"It's great to have your data processing at a cheap price," says Boniface, "but you need to be able to send that over to Europe. Today, that is the bottleneck of Iceland, because there are only a few cables."

For blockchain applications, you send the data for processing only once, meaning it does not consume a lot of bandwidth. "But if you do have any other banking system, where you have many customers currently on the websites, it consumes a lot of bandwidth," he says, adding this makes it too costly at present.

There is a new major cable between Iceland and Ireland - handily at the intersection between the US and Europe - billed for completion in the next couple of years which could send demand soaring.

"That's going to be a game changer when it goes live," he continues. "Because today, we have many customers who see the price and would love to come but they cannot because of the connectivity issue."

The future?

Yet would this necessarily be beneficial for Iceland? Smari McCarthy, a member of the Icelandic parliament for the Pirate Party, tweeted in 2018: "Cryptocurrency mining requires almost no staff, very little in capital investments, and mostly leaves no taxes either. The value to Iceland... is virtually zero."

Even if the data centre expanded to encompass more types of data handling outside of crypto, this assessment remains pretty much the same. It's one of the reasons the US government has been attacked for offering large subsidies to tech giants to install data centres.

The increasing energy demand, too, is not without complications. Protesters say that the hydroelectric plants and geothermal energy plants are a blight on the landscape while also altering local ecology and diverting rivers.

The establishment of one of the biggest hydropower plants in Iceland, Kárahnjúkar, caused complex and detrimental environmental outcomes. For example, the fish population in Lake Lagarfljót collapsed and the wild reindeer population lost important areas of its grazing and breeding grounds. Those worried about the increasingly voracious appetite of data centre companies on Iceland's future could be right to be concerned.


Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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