eWeek: Arctic Data Center Designed to Break Records for Size and Efficiency

By: Wayne Rash

NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s abundant hydroelectric power, cold climate and cool water make the Scandinavian nation location for the world’s largest data center with near-record efficiency.

In some ways, Scandinavia is a data center designer’s dream location. The region has weather cool enough so that the computers can be chilled with natural air.

It’s got plenty of cold water in its fjords while electricity is cheap and abundant. Couple that with a skilled and educated workforce as well as a stable economy, it’s a natural setting for a mega-scale data center project.

This explains why a number of large data centers from companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have already set up shop in Sweden and Denmark. Now, with an ambitious plan from data center venture Kolos, it’s coming to Norway.

There, in the small city of Ballangen, Kolos co-CEO Mark Robinson told eWEEK that the company plans to build the 600,000 square meter (about 6.5 million square feet) facility on land formerly occupied by an airport. The land is on Norway’s west coast in an area of fjords and rugged mountains. The four-story facility will supply a gigawatt of power for computing with an estimated PUE (power usage effectiveness) of 1.04.

Co-CEO Havard Lillebo said the PUE could go even lower if cold water from an adjacent spillway is used for cooling. Power usage effectiveness is a measure that compares the total power consumption used by a data center against the power required to run the computers. A PUE of 1.0 is ideal because it would mean that no power was required to provide cooling, lighting or other facility services.

The availability of hydroelectric power and wind power in that part of Norway means that the data center will be run entirely on renewable energy. And the energy there is cheap. Robinson said that Kolos will be paying between 2.5 and 3.5 Euro cents per kilowatt hour, which is about 25 percent of the average price of electricity in the U.S.

Kolos has a goal of not adversely affecting the environment through its activities. This is the reason for the focus on renewable energy, which extends to the design for its backup generation system, which will use fuel cells rather than diesel generators. The byproduct of fuel cells for power generation is just one thing—pure water.

In addition, the Kolos facility will be partially buried on the shores of the fjord, with the building roofs covered with grass as natural insulation. Lillebo said that this was being done for energy efficiency and to reduce the visual impact of the data center. The facility will be located in an area below the town of Ballangen, where it would be easily visible by most of the residents.

The only other data center in the world with similar capacity will be the Amazon Web Services data center, which is being built in a campus in Ashburn, Va. near Dulles International Airport outside of Washington DC.

Data centers are frequently measured by their power availability because that’s the normal limit to how much computing power can be in any one data center. Lillebo said that other data centers in Europe are limited by the availability of power to about 150 megawatts.

Robinson said that he expects the Ballangen data center to be occupied by cloud providers and by a crypto-currency provider. He said that the amount of computing power needed for crypto-currency providers such as Bitcoin is significant.

The Kolos data center will be the world’s largest, but only for a while. Switch, which owns the SuperNAP data centers in Las Vegas and in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is planning a new data center near Reno, Nevada that will be slightly larger than the Kolos facility in terms of size, but the current power capacity will be 150 megawatts.

Both the Kolos and the Switch data centers are at the leading edge of a trend towards mega-scale data centers. Larger facilities are more efficient than smaller ones because they can take advantage of the efficiencies of scale in areas such as staffing. This means that making a data center twice as large doesn’t require twice as much staff.

Kolos emphasizes the physical security of its site, versus other sites in areas that have less natural protection. Ballangen was formerly a center for iron ore mining, and while the mining activities are history, they’ve left a physical legacy. That legacy includes a moat that surrounds the property, which when coupled with the rugged mountains, makes approaching the facility difficult.

While the Kolos data center is a leading example of using natural characteristics to make data centers more efficient, it’s not the only one. IBM is operating a data center elsewhere in Norway, although not on the same scale. Likewise, a number of data centers in the Pacific Northwest are located near hydroelectric dams where they can use cheaper power and water for cooling.

If the Kolos site turns out to be a success, it should be no surprise to see more data centers in areas with similar characteristics, such as Alaska and Maine in the U.S., and in northern Canada. Canada already has abundant hydroelectric power as does Alaska in some areas. Perhaps the next data center trend will be to head north.