What is the link between financial institutions, the war in Ukraine, Iceland’s volcanic landscape and a public swimming pool in a small Devon town?
At first glance, they may seem like a disparate collection. But a closer inspection reveals a deep connection to data – and the key to the puzzle is found within the warm waters of the Exmouth Leisure Centre and the high-tech data centres of Verne Global.
The recreational facility on the south coast of the rural English county made headlines when waste heat from a washing machine-sized data centre was channelled to its pool and gyms. Enough energy has been harnessed to reduce the sports venue’s power bills by thousands of pounds.
The experiment led by data centre owners Deep Green was conceived as energy costs were sent to record highs by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, threatening the existence of public facilities such as swimming pools in the UK.
But the novel application highlighted how energy-hungry data centres are exploring ways to mitigate the carbon footprint and costs of their operations. While the Deep Green captured heat generated by its own equipment, Verne Global is harnessing the earth’s waste heat to power its servers and racks cheaply and sustainably. Like all homes and building in Iceland, its Keflavik data centre benefits from the sub-arctic island’s plentiful supplies of geothermal, wind and hydro.
“Iceland generates all its power from renewables,” explains Verne Global chief executive Dominic Ward. “The climate and power provision in Iceland is ideal for data centres. It’s never too hot or too cold, and it allows us to build differently from elsewhere.
“We can achieve more efficient compute power with a fixed price that is incredibly low – it’s a totally different model in Iceland.”
As well as its Icelandic plant, Verne Global operates facilities in Finland and London. Finding the greenest source of energy to drive its assets fits well for a company that provides the hardware to support the sort of data that underpins the financial sector’s ESG integration and other functions.
Data centres require a lot of energy to power their equipment and to run fans that prevent it from overheating. At a time when investors, regulators and consumers are scrutinising companies’ sustainability performances, data centre operators are looking at ways they can mitigate the amount energy they use and the carbon that produces – while also reducing the cost of providing it.
Microsoft’s Project Natick, for instance, pioneered undersea data centres, in which the surrounding waters helps to maintain a constant cool temperature within the facility and provide a limitless – and free – source of water to remove heat from within the centre.
Alternatively, like Verne Global, they are turning to renewable energy sources. The company is a member of the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, whose 100-plus data centre-operating signatories are committed to meeting the aims of the European Green Deal to ensure Europe’s economy has a neutral impact on the climate by 2050.
With clients that include large financial services companies, manufacturers and retailers, Verne Global was recently acquired by D9 Infrastructure, which has interests in subsea, terrestrial and wireless infrastructure projects.
Ward says the move to remote working established during the coronavirus pandemic has provided momentum for a similar evolution within the data centre industry. With Iceland and Finland offering ample sources of green energy, but the lion share of data customers in cities, he envisages a new geographical division of functions.
Lighter applications such as high-frequency trading, would be hosted in London, where data centres are more costly to run and where renewables are less plentiful. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian centres would carry the heavier loads needed for high-performance and supercomputing functions.
“The move to cloud means that people are happy with remote – they want sustainability, they are cost conscious and the need predictability of performance,” he tells A-Team Group. “Under these circumstances, Verne has managed to get traction. Our present use-case is to help clients push their workloads into an optimal environmental split, maybe 10% in London and 90% in Iceland.”
Soon to be added to the company’s capabilities at its low-cost centres may be parallelisation. Verne Global is running models using “20,000 parameters across multiple stacks”. That sort of load increase would be too expensive to host in London, Ward said.
The benefits to customers of Verne Global’s centres are both reputational and financial. With Iceland’s power generated entirely from renewables, and about half of Finland’s from green sources, clients can improve their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, cutting their total carbon footprint by 98 per cent, says Ward.
And with renewables cheaper than fossil fuels in those countries, the lower energy costs can be passed on to clients. Some customers are enjoying 75 per cent lower costs.
“The idea is to optimise efficiency and then pass this along in savings to clients,” he says.
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