The Earlham Institute is conducting a pilot test into the viability of moving its high performance computing (HPC) equipment to Iceland in order to reduce its energy bills and carbon emissions.
The institute (formerly The Genome Analysis Centre) operates two HPC data centres on its campus in Norwich, which it uses to conduct biotechnology research including assembling the wheat genome.
These experiments are incredibly computationally expensive - it takes many days to assemble the wheat genome even with the most powerful computers - which of course equates to using an awful lot of energy.
In a pilot study the Institute has installed a number of test HPC rigs in a data centre in Iceland run by the company Verne Global. Thanks to its abundant supply of renewable geothermal and hydroelectric power, Iceland is able to offer very low prices and to guarantee these prices for ten or 20 years.
"In the UK electricity costs 16p per kWh, or 18p with PUE and VAT, whereas in Iceland it's 4p per kwH. That's a big difference," said head of scientific computing Dr Tim Stitt.
"Running a HPC data centre is very expensive, particularly for a publicly funded organisation like the Earlham Institute. We spend hundreds of thousands of pounds annually on energy in the UK. I'd much rather spend that money on research projects and human capital than give it to the energy companies."
Stitt calculates that savings on energy and cooling (another obvious plus for Iceland) should cut the HPC energy bill by 70 per cent. The Institute needs to create physical space for its HPC activities too. With its existing data centres filling up Stitt looked at cloud, UK-based co-location and building new facilities. The first two options do not sit well with the Institute's up-front funding model, while the latter is at least five years down the road and subject to approval by the authorities.
Iceland, whose heat and power already comes from 100 per cent renewable energy sources, was also attractive for environmental reasons. The Earlham Institute works on producing wheat varieties that are resistant to the effects of climate change and is keen to minimise its contribution to rising global temperatures.
Verne Global's data centre is situated in the west of Iceland on the site of an old NATO base. The company assures concerned clients that this area is seismically stable and unlikely to be affected by volcanos and strong earthquakes. "That's why NATO put the base there", said Stitt, pointing out that a recent report rated Iceland as the lowest risk location for a data centre.
A number of HPC machines are currently being set up at Verne Global and connected to the CyVerse global scientific computing infrastructure. During the pilot programme, Stitt's team wants to discover whether the total cost of ownership really will be as low as forecast, how remote management will work out in practice (currently Earlham staff can just walk in and fix things) and how local import rules and bureaucracy will affect the transfer of equipment.
Stitt is keen to start testing whether latency and performance issues will have a noticeable effect. "We will start it up, but we're not going to say when, and we're really curious to see whether users will be able to tell if the workload is in the UK or Iceland," he said.
There are also plans for sychronised object stores in Iceland and the UK, so that large data sets can be moved close to where they are needed.
The Arctic Circle, with its free cooling and abundant cheap and clean energy, is an attractive location for data centres. Facebook operates facilities in Luleå, northern Sweden, and Volkswagen is listed as a Verne Global customer - "there are quite a few others too that haven't gone public about it," Stitt insisted.
After a year of trials Stitt's team will produce a report on the pros and cons of co-locating HPC in Iceland. If the pilot is successful, the Institute will start moving its mission-critical genome research infrastructure to the country at a later date. Stitt also hopes it will serve as an example to other scientific organisations.
"We are the first academic institution, certainly in the UK but probably globally, to put HPC kit in Iceland so it's also a study for the bigger community. If we can show that it works and it saves money then maybe others will follow."
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