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Iceland should be the clean, green future of datacentres. So why aren't more firms going there?
July 30, 2012

By Liam Tung

Having a datacentre in clean, green places like Finland and Sweden already makes sense to tech heavyweights like Google and Facebook - but don't expect a mass migration to the north.

While there have been calls recently for Microsoft, Apple and Amazon to move all their data centres to Iceland, often touted by Greenpeace as a low carbon output location compared to the US, seemingly addicted to using dirty energy sources.

The main problem with the theory that companies like Amazon can reduce carbon emissions by simply migrating datacentres to, say, Iceland is the "cruel realities of the speed of light" or latency, according to James Hamilton, Amazon Web Service's distinguished engineer.

The problem for companies like Google and Amazon is that users hate latency -- and revenue depends on users.

Hamilton points in his blog to tests that Google ran in 2008, which showed an increase in search-result latency from 0.4 second to 0.9 seconds translated into a 20 per cent drop in traffic.

The emergence of content distribution networks like Akamai illustrate how sensitive people are to latency, especially in the cases of gaming networks and stock trading platforms.

"They have miniature 'datacentres' not only per metro area, but inside individual ISPs operating in the same geographical areas in order to shave off the most amount of microseconds between them and the end users," Tore Anderson, network and infrastructure manager at Swedish open source outfit Redpill Linpro tells Norse Code.

Iceland out of the picture

For that reason, Matthew Prince, CEO of content distribution network CloudFlare, tells Norse Code that while Stockholm is on its agenda in the very near future -- to serve the Baltics and the rest of Scandinavia -- Iceland is well off.

"Putting a CloudFlare node in Iceland, for example, would likely be a bad idea. Even if the power were cheap, routing traffic out to the island and then back would introduce a significant amount of latency. For us, that's critical."

"While CloudFlare is concerned with being environmentally sensitive, and, specifically, we significantly decrease load on our customers servers making them more efficient and decreasing their energy use, our datacentre location choices are driven first by minimising latency and, only after we've optimised for that, do we choose facilities in order to minimise their power requirements."

So with this endless lust for speed, how can places like Iceland, home to Verne Global's Colt datacentre powered by 100 per cent green energy, play a part in solving the cloud's carbon output woes?

Anderson and Prince agree the answer is to push all the high-compute, latency-insensitive workloads northwards.

Large clusters of scientific data from places like CERN's Large Hadron Collider or seismic data from North Sea oil companies would be ideal, says Anderson. However, bandwidth could be a problem, he adds.

Prince meanwhile points to video rendering or large scale simulations, which need a "ton of compute resources" but aren't latency sensitive.

So it's probably going to remain a niche market for very specific types of data processing that perhaps consumers won't experience first hand, but Anderson argues Iceland should become a default.

"Essentially what makes sense, in my opinion, is to put the workload in Iceland if you can, but in NYC if you must."

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