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Data center weathers Iceland volcano

Some data center providers have turned to Iceland in recent years to take advantage of geothermal power. Despite the recent volcano, one data center operator in Iceland said it's business as usual.

Jeff Monroe, CEO of Verne Global, said the erupting volcano in Iceland has turned out to be a great real-world test for his company's decision to locate a 44-acre data center at a former NATO Command Center in Keflavik.

It helps that the facility is being constructed in hardened underground bunkers. But the site is also set on 1.5 million-year-old bedrock on the west side of the country, well clear of the plume of ash spread by a prevailing western wind. And while European air traffic sat grounded, flights never stopped taking off in Keflavik.

"In Iceland, as anywhere in the world, there are all kinds of natural disasters to deal with. As it turns out, NATO is pretty good at picking strategic locations," Monroe said. "It's business as usual for us in Iceland, and our position with customers and prospects remains unchanged. Our customers understand that our site is strategically located and is designed to mitigate risks involved with leveraging geothermal power."

Our customers understand that our site is strategically located and is designed to mitigate risks involved with leveraging geothermal power.
Jeff Monroe,
CEO of Verne Global

It helps that Iceland's now-rumbling ground produces clean, abundant geothermal power and its clear lakes offer plenty of free cooling. Those factors played heavily in Verne Global's ability to build in the country and pursue a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold standard for energy efficiency.

Data center engineers know that natural disasters are part of the checklist for site locations. As fiber connectivity improves beyond traditional population centers, engineers face different environmental challenges.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon," Monroe said. "There are certainly going to be players who site their data centers in places that are at risk of various environmental factors."

Even in data-rich northern Virginia, where structures are built to withstand hurricanes and the very occasional earthquake, Daren Shumate, director of East Coast operations for electrical contractor Rosendin Electric, notes that many business-critical data center locations are under the approach path for Dulles International Airport.

"Everybody talks about what would happen in a plane crash," he said. "It's not a natural disaster, but you can't design for that."

In one of Rosendin's designs for a major financial data center in Fairfax, Va., for example, structures were designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. But when Hurricane Isabel hit in 2003, the biggest threat came from the potential loss of cooling water. In Fairfax, city water is pump-pressurized and slows to a trickle in the case of power loss. Quick-thinking site managers brought in truckloads of water to prevent against downtime or worse. Now the data center is equipped with permanent water storage on-site.

With enough money, a site can be designed to withstand nearly anything. But while business factors are often weighted more heavily, they can offer a greater tolerance for risk. Low power costs, as in Iceland or Eastern Washington, for example, can save a company millions every year, allowing more flexibility in site location and construction budgets.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to the price of property," Shumate said. "If the price is right, you can take a calculated risk."

As the 30th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption in southwestern Washington approaches this year and Europe continues to dig out of Iceland's ash, seismic risks are more prevalent than ever.

"You don't think about volcanic ash in the air," Shumate said. "I guess it adds another thing to the checklist."

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