Iceland fears volcanic ash fallout may soil data center game

By MATT VINCENT, Senior Editor -- Should recent volcanic activity really threaten the nation's favorability as a data center location?

By MATT VINCENT, Senior Editor -- ChannelWeb's Kevin McLaughlin turned out a good piece recently. To wit, as has been in the news with some frequency, Iceland's brisk climate, coupled with plentiful renewable energy resources including geothermal and hydroelectric footprints, makes the tiny island nation a prime spot for locating IT data centers. Enter a weird volcanic eruption early this week, plus some heavy financial indications, at least for European airlines, and companies may be thinking twice about hosting core IT assets in a place where Mother Nature is known for being a bit of a beast.

But should they be?

The icecap of the small glacier of Eyjafjallajokull, which has erupted with relative frequency since the Ice Age, erupted again on Monday (although, it's been while), blasting a truly massive ash plume nearly 40,000 feet into the sky (and look: it erupted not once, but twice), obliterating heavily traveled airline corridors across northern Europe and Scandinavian countries, and triggering flooding and sporadic fallout up to three millimeters thick around the eruption site, according to a report from Iceland's Government Information Center.

It's unclear how or if the ash fallout will affect Iceland's IT infrastructure. Channelweb.com's McLaughlin said that his attempts Thursday to contact Icelandic firms were unsuccessful. Local news reporting said the ash fallout is the largest Iceland has seen since an eruption in 1918. Some scientists aren't ruling out the possibility that the volcano could keep erupting. (Editorial comment: Give me a break. These things can't be predicted, at least not with much frequency.)

As McLaughlin rightly notes, data centers are constructed to withstand environmental extremes and natural disasters. But volcanic ash is known for its ability to wreak havoc on desktops, servers -- any type of IT infrastructure that has moving parts. Volcanic ash also contains silica, an abrasive, conductive sand material that's capable of destroying printed circuit board (PCB) technology. With the weight and consistency of talcum powder, the silky ash can easily slip through data center cooling systems, even with proper filters installed.

(Here's my take on this: Bad for Iceland, not so much for data centers. You puts your data center in Iceland, you gets what you gets. A freak bicentennial volcanic eruption. Maybe.)

Further, McLaughlin points out that the volcanic eruption comes at a time when Iceland's data center building push is beginning to gain momentum. In January, Verne Global, a data center developer based in Keflavik, Iceland, and Washington, D.C ., formed a deal with Wellcome Trust, a global biomedical research firm, to build a 44 acre data center facility on the site of a former NATO Command Centre in Keflavik, Iceland.

(Enterprise data centers have no way of controlling or predicting natural calamities. Don't let it happen again, Earth! As we say here in New Hampshire, "Yah, right.")

Although Iceland's economy is still in turmoil after the collapse of its financial system, the country has been aggressively trying to attract data center projects. According to the Invest In Iceland Agency, "Iceland is the only country in Western Europe that still has extensive, untapped resources of competitively priced hydroelectric power and geothermal energy. It is the only western country that produces all its electricity from emission-free, sustainable natural resources."

(I don't know, call me a breathless risk taker, but a little volcanic activity every couple hundred years or so -- albeit, however inconveniencing --does necessarily, to me, indicate a certifiably lousy place for new data center construction. A lot of great FYs can be stuffed inside of a couple centuries, you think? Let's not get hysterical.)

McLaughlin adds that, in March 2009, Alaska's Mount Redoubt, a 9,000-foot stratovolcano located about 110 miles southwest of Anchorage, erupted for the better part of a week, although favorable wind patterns prevented much of the ash from reaching the city and wreaking havoc on its IT infrastructure.

(Still sounds like pretty good odds to me. This kind of thing happens. You know, with regard to data centers, it's not like no one has ever pointed out the whole "Iceland problem" before. Well, keep in mind: it could always be worse.)

-- Matt Vincent, Senior Editor

Email: mattv@pennwell.com

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