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Big data is going green – even without sunlight

Deep inside a narrow valley, where Norwegian hydropower production first began,

beyond the reach of the rays of the sun,

lies an industrial powerhouse

that’s both sustainable and cost-effective

The valley that is home to Rjukan is famous for the dramatic and decisive events that took place there during the Second World War. But it’s also known for being so deep and narrow that they have installed mirrors at the top of the mountain to send some much-longed-for sunlight down to the bottom of the valley.

Ready access to an abundance of waterfalls and hydropower means that Rjukan – and many other places throughout Norway – are ideal sites for data centres.

We will get back to Rjukan later. First, let’s talk about high performance computing (HPC).

Demand for data storage is growing steadily as companies employ artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to design and manufacture innovative products and services. As a result, there is tremendous growth in the energy-intensive HPC used for AI and ML, leading to an increase in both energy-related costs and emissions.

By moving their data to Norway, to a highly energy-efficient data centre run on 100 per cent renewable energy, companies can cut costs and eliminate emissions, while still reaping the benefits of HPC.

The cradle of clean electricity

As most HPC applications are not particularly latency-sensitive, they can essentially be placed anywhere in the world with the right prerequisites. Chief among these is access to green electricity, which is why international companies are increasingly turning to Norway.

One of the larger Norwegian actors is Green Mountain. For major international clients like the Volkswagen Group, Green Mountain’s green credentials have been decisive.

Svein Hagaseth, Chief Sales Officer at Green Mountain, explains how the company’s RJU1-Rjukan centre is perfectly suited to HPC:

“Our RJU1 centre in Rjukan is situated in the cradle of Norwegian hydroelectricity, where 5 per cent of Norway’s total power is generated from a series of local hydroelectric dams that produce over 700 MW. All 100 per cent zero-carbon emissions, of course,” he says.

Wet and cold – perfect for data centres

“Norway is wet and cold, as we all know, but Rjukan barely sees the light of day six months out of the year."

- Svein Hagaseth, Chief Sales Officer, Green Mountain

Rjukan is well connected to the national grid, so RJU1 provides excellent resilience and redundancy. Moreover, the location’s wet and temperate climate – and lack of sunlight – can cut operating costs.

“Norway is wet and cold, as we all know,” says Hagaseth, “but Rjukan barely sees the light of day six months out of the year. The locals have even installed mirrors on the mountaintops to shine light down on the town centre during winter. Keeping the data centre cooled in this location takes significantly less energy as a result.”

From a power efficiency, availability and cost perspective, Hagaseth is convinced that Norway has unique competitive advantages in Europe. But he is quick to point out that none of these would matter if Green Mountain did not offer a world-class service:

“We have a very productive relationship with the municipality and local community in terms of opportunities for expansion. People who come to Rjukan tend to stay, and we therefore have a very high retention rate of skilled labour and a stable workforce.”

Excellent connectivity to European data hubs

Norway’s location on the far northwestern coast of Europe should not hinder companies from locating their data there. On the contrary, the location yields nothing but benefits, as an increasing number of players are discovering.

A massive expansion of submarine fibre optic cables between Norwegian cities and international data hubs, many owned or operated by Bulk Infrastructure, has firmly enmeshed Norway in the middle of the Nordic data highway. By most recent accounts, Norway’s connectivity is now on par or even slightly exceeds that of its Nordic neighbours.

In addition to its network infrastructure operations, Bulk is also active in industrial real estate and operates several data centres. One of these is Norway Data Center Campus – NO1 – which Rob Elder, Bulk’s Vice President Sales, Data Centres, calls a “future-proof” campus.

“With a 300ha site and up to 1 GW of available electricity, it’s the world’s largest data centre campus powered by 100 per cent green electricity, and is specifically geared towards massive scale such as the growth we’re currently witnessing in HPC,” says Elder.

According to him, the campus, which is located in Kristiansand, Norway’s southernmost city, benefits both from clean Norwegian energy and from its proximity to other key European data hubs:

“From Kristiansand, we’re able to offer robust connections to European clients via multiple network routes. This offers resilience, redundancy and greater selection among multiple competitive carriers.”

"From Kristiansand, we’re able to offer robust connections to European clients via multiple network routes."

Rob Elder

Vice President Sales, Data Centres, Bulk Infrastructure

Server rack at a data centre

An integrated part of the European market

Elder points to a lingering myth that often makes potential investors hesitate: Norway’s status as a non-EU country. Many are unfamiliar with what this entails, and fear that it may complicate business. Fortunately, it's a myth that is easy to dispel.

“Through the EEA Agreement, Norway has the same access to the internal European market as any other EU country. On top of being one of the most stable locations politically, Norway’s regulations are harmonised with the EU. In short, there is absolutely no complication.”

When it comes to data security, Norway is in many ways more secure than some of its European neighbours. It is a NATO member, for instance, and has an extra layer of data security protocols in place that is of particular interest to clients with sensitive data.

One Norwegian HPC actor takes data security to a whole new level. Built deep within an abandoned mine, Lefdal Mine Datacenter is virtually impregnable to physical security breaches and is even shielded against electromagnetic pulses thanks to the massive mountain above it.

Major clients such as IBM

Unusual traits like these have gained Lefdal Mine Datacenter international attention in the press, but Chief Marketing Office Mats Andersson explains that major clients like IBM have chosen the facility for strictly practical reasons:

“Bringing down electricity costs is crucial to HPC, and Norway already has the cleanest electricity in Europe,” he says.

“Lefdal Mine Datacenter then takes an extra step towards reducing electricity consumption by pumping cold water from the neighbouring fjord to cool the racks. This enables high density HPC of up to 50 KW/rack with standard inline cooling.”

Andersson explains that using water from the deep fjord as a coolant results in a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of between 1.08 and 1.15 – making Lefdal Mine Datacenter one of the most energy and cost-effective data centres in Europe. At 120 000 m² and more than 200 MW capacity, the facility also has the potential to become one of the largest data centres in Europe, with abundant space available for its clients to grow.

"Through the EEA Agreement, Norway has the same access to the internal European market as any other EU country."

Rob Elder

Vice President Sales, Data Centres, Bulk Infrastructure

“As an industry, we’ve got this one.”

Lowest operational costs on the market

Given the dramatic rise in AI and ML and resulting demand for HPC, all three of the data centre companies above are confident that the market potential is nowhere close to being fully realised.

“With over 400 MW projected in Europe in just the next four years, the market potential is enormous,” says Andersson, who continues:

“Current HPC expansion in Norway is just the tip of the iceberg. The cost factor alone plays perfectly into Norway’s hands, not to mention all the other boxes it ticks.”

Svein Hagaseth of Green Mountain agrees, and says when it comes to HPC, Norway is to a large degree able to sell itself:

“If you are looking to move a workload to Norway, reduced energy consumption can alone result in a 75 per cent cost savings. Add to that zero carbon emissions... I feel more like a missionary than a salesperson. There’s simply no reason not to move data to Norway.”

Rob Elder of Bulk, too, is confident that Norway has a bright future in HPC:

“As an industry, we’ve got this one.”

To get back to Rjukan and the Second World War…. The town was not only home to a hydropower plant, but also to a heavy water plant. It was the only place that Nazi Germany could get hold of heavy water to use in an atomic bomb.

During a dramatic sabotage mission in 1943, immortalised in TV series and film, members of the Norwegian resistance destroyed the heavy water plant.

Fast forward to the 2000s, and the town is now home to a world-leading data centre powered by clean energy and offering high energy-efficiency, first-class connectivity and – not least – robust security.