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Data Center Operators Flock To Cold Climates

Service providers such as Microsoft are building new data centers in cold locations such as Finland to cut power and cooling costs.

When it comes to data centers, cold is all the rage.

With service providers establishing cloud-enabling data centers all over the world, it’s clear that cold-weather sites have moved front-and-center as attractive locations.

From Iceland’s growing status as a home for new and expanding data centers to Facebook’s recently opened Sweden facility and, most recently, Microsoft’s plans to build a $250 million data center in Finland, companies are finding many reasons to locate data centers in icy locales.

Even a place like Utah, which straddles the line between mountainous cold-weather regions and scorching high-desert environments and is home to the NSA’s massive new surveillance data-crunching facility, has been trying to capitalize on the trend with online ads that target data center operators by declaring, “Utah is a lot cooler than you think.”

Obviously, cold external air is a big attraction for data center operators, all of whom are trying to minimize power and cooling costs. Andrew Donohoe, a senior analyst with 451 Research, addressed this in a recent report.

“The challenge of cooling modern data centers has been likened to using a room full of air conditioners to cool a room full of fan heaters. It is difficult, expensive and inefficient,” Donohoe wrote. “Data centers that use outside air or other emerging cooling technologies promise to be cheaper, more efficient and more sustainable than traditional, mechanically cooled facilities.”

Donohoe’s fellow analyst at 451 Research, Andy Lawrence, said via email that the overarching goal of Internet infrastructure companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook is to be able to construct data centers that need no mechanical refrigeration at all.

“This requires a combination of temperate or cool climate and the ability to control, tolerate or manage possible temporary disruptions,” he said. “This is one of the drivers for investing in places like Finland.”

Lawrence added that outside temperature is only one of the factors leading data center operators to look to cold climates.

“The Nordic countries are attractive because they have very reliable, low-cost power which has a low carbon content, owing to the use of hydropower,” Lawrence said. “In Iceland, thermal energy is reliable, cheap and green. So temperature is a secondary driver.”

[Read about how EMC plans to capitalize on cloud computing and big data trends in "EMC CEO Talks Up The Software-Defined Data Center."]

Cliff Grossner, a data center and cloud computing analysts with Infonetics Research, said via email that the big driver for data center operators is to achieve a “power usage effectiveness” rating as close to 1 as possible. PUE measures the ratio of power being consumed by a data center to the percentage of that power that is actually being delivered to computing equipment.

“Recently, we spoke with a data center operator [in a cold-weather locale] that claimed to have achieved a PUE of 1.1,” said Grossner.

Naturally, there are trade-offs to locating data centers in far-flung cold-weather regions. For instance, Donohoe said via email that “latency can be an issue for financial transactions,” which is why so many of the companies building cold-weather data centers are the Microsofts, Googles and Facebooks of the world, rather than financial services companies.

Still, why now? Why haven’t these companies flocked to the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere before now when it seems like such a no-brainer?

Simple, says Donohoe: “Energy costs weren’t such a big factor before.”

[Find out about Application Delivery Controller features designed to address challenges enterprises face in reliably delivering applications to end users in "Application Delivery in the New Data Center" at Interop New York this week.]

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