College sticks cloud into geothermal igloo data centre

Investing in Iceland. What could go wrong?

It's cold, it's bleak, and it's best known economically for its fisheries industry and the 2008 banking crisis, but Iceland is also the source of a radical solution in managing data centres that has led an English further education college to do a deal that will be available for the education sector throughout the UK.

Hertford Regional College (HRC) has set up a framework agreement with Thor Data Center in Hafnafjordur, just south of Reykjavik, to provide storage and a platform for running applications. It is now migrating its own data to the site and is talking to other institutions about using the facility.

Daniel Hidlebaugh, the college's chief technology officer, says the move was prompted by the need to make savings while meeting green targets and building in sufficient resilience. It did not have the resources to provide 24/7 support for an in-house data centre and looked for an outside provider.

The Thor facility is run on geothermal energy which is present throughout Iceland; usually tapped by drilling a few hundred feet below ground. It is also west of the volcanoes which erupted last year, and as the prevailing winds are west to east it is away from any areas affected by ash.

The centre has a power usage effectiveness ratio that is consistently close to 1:1. This is kept down by the fact that, even in the winter when the outside temperature is too cold for the servers to run, the geothermal energy provides the heat to compensate for this. In addition, the local temperature seldom rises above 16°C in the summer, which removes the need for power to cool the centre. "It's a closed system that helps everything run at a low consumption rate," Hidlebaugh says.

Another potential advantage is in helping organisations keep down their carbon emissions. With the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme now in operation, those that use excessive amounts of energy will be subject to fines. Hidlebaugh says the centre will provide a route to avoiding any charges, and that it can do a bit to alleviate a national problem.

"We have a finite amount of power here, and there are some colleges that don't have the power to plug in one more server. The resources have become very finite, so what do we do? It takes 10 years to build another nuclear power supply and there are all sorts of issues with wind, so by putting it into another data centre in the UK it doesn't help us.

"But by moving it out it helps us to go green because their data centre is carbon neutral, it saves us from drawing on the power grid in the UK, and it gives us long term stability in power.

"The power costs were significantly less. Where we were paying anything from 9-11p per KwH, and that is going to increase by 10%-15% every year for who knows how long, we have it at 4-5p per KwH hour guaranteed over the next 10 years. It's a significant saving for us," he explains.

Dammit, Janet, it's cold in here

HRC has been able to set up multiple connections, with a bandwidth of 10Gbps, through Janet, the UK's network for higher education and research. This provides an encrypted channel from any educational institution in the public sector into the Thor data centre.

By mid November HRC had migrated about 6Tb of data to the site as part of a programme to move more than 30Tb by the end of January. This is being packaged into large SAN devices which are air freighted to Iceland and after the data is transferred air freighted back to the UK.

Hidlebaugh says it provides the scope to run most of the applications used by the college through the centre.

"We'll be running finance, HR, Moodle (an open source learning application) and others, just about any application that we don't require to be here, things like access control and CCTV. We can manage it remotely; it's on our IP network so we can log in just as if it's sitting next to us."

He says there are no regulatory problems attached to storing data in Iceland, as it is considered "near EU" for data protection purposes and it is acceptable for information, including student records, to reside there.

While Hidlebaugh evangelises the green elements of the move, he also claims the business is set up in a way that will provide an attractive option. HRC has signed an exclusivity deal with Thor which makes it the channel, taking a 3% cut of the business, for any public sector education institutions that want to use the centre. Janet will provide the infrastructure for connections, and Hidlebaugh says that the prices for hosting and cost per rack will offer significant savings. The deal has been set up through an framework agreement working on an "open book" basis, in which the prices will remain constant throughout its four year lifetime.

It's also crucial, he says, that for the UK end of the business it is being kept within the public sector.

"The private sector tends to look at education as a cash cow, and even though our budgets are decreasing they're still huge in terms of private sector business," he says. "I've always had a perception that education should be for education, that we should help each other out and try to stop the commercial barracudas out there.

"Basically that's what this is – education for education, and that's become our tagline."

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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