New Iceland-Ireland subsea cable could drive sustainable AI
The subsea cables that make up the earth’s ‘digital central nervous system’, transmitting the majority of the world’s data across oceans at 99.7% of the speed of light, are our most efficient way of sending information around the globe. With higher carrying capability and lower latency than transporting data via satellites, these cables form the backbone of the internet, facilitating the quick global transfer of data – especially when there are multiple paths available between countries.
The Icelandic government recently announced plans for ‘IRIS’, a new subsea cable connecting the country to Ireland. The country already has two connections to Europe: FARICE-1, which connects Iceland and the United Kingdom, and DANICE, connecting it to Denmark. As its third connection to Europe, IRIS will further strengthen Iceland’s global connectivity and digital edge.
Subsea cables provide island nations – such as Iceland, or for that matter, Australia and the UK – with international connectivity, and advance their role in the global digital ecosystem. As a third cable providing two levels of redundancy, IRIS and other cables like it significantly reduce the impact of cable faults. However, on the flip side, as countries and enterprises around the globe go through almost continuous digital transformation, the growth in cloud computing that these cables support has become a cause for environmental concern.
The UN stated that this year is the year that the world must act to avoid runaway climate change. According to The Shift Project research, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) already accounts for approximately 4% of worldwide carbon emissions. High intensity compute in particular contributes to this hugely: AI models themselves can be so power-hungry that the carbon emissions from training one deep learning model can be up to 5 times greater than the amount generated during the entire lifetime of a car, per research conducted by the University of Massachusetts in 2019.
Unfortunately, the phenomenal growth we’ve seen in recent years in cloud computing means that even as computer server technology continues to improve, the consumption of power by data centres could double over the next ten years. Indeed, European Commission research shows that one viral video – whether that’s Despacito’s 7.03bn YouTube views or Baby Shark Dance’s 6.98bn – can consume the same energy as an entire nation’s energy requirements for a whole year.
Indeed, just a few years ago, a Toronto-based company proposed plans for a subsea cable that would run through the Arctic and connect Tokyo to London through a route 4,280km shorter than the existing available low-latency routes that run through the Suez Canal. The rub is that running a cable through this location would have previously been impossible – but climate change and melting ice caps means that this is no longer the case.
However, there is a way that increased international connectivity provided by subsea cables can help to solve this issue. Subsea cable systems allow companies much greater flexibility in choosing where to locate their high intensity compute. Plus, as over 80% of high performance computing (HPC) equipment does not need to be located near the end-user in terms of latency and accessibility, businesses can now think about processing and storing data almost anywhere in the world. Given the heavy carbon footprint of AI, businesses need to think about this as a matter of urgency.
As the only country in Europe that generates 100% of its power from renewable hydroelectric and geothermal energy sources, Iceland is already in a unique position. And as a third connection between Iceland and Europe, IRIS increases the redundancy and resilience of the Nordic nation’s connectivity, enhancing its digital advantage and cementing its position as a viable home for businesses’ high intensity compute. In this way, IRIS accentuates Iceland’s appeal for businesses looking to locate their HPC in a country with such environmental benefits. The growing concerns surrounding the sustainability of AI show that we need to tackle these issues head-on, and cable systems such as IRIS are facilitating practical actions that do so.
While the pace of the digital economy continues to accelerate, these subsea cables connecting Iceland to the rest of the world provide means as well as reason to move from rhetoric to reality in achieving sustainable AI. HPC can and should be located where data can be processed in the most efficient, cost-effective and sustainable way possible, and the new IRIS system endorses the location of high intensity compute in Iceland as a real and viable solution to the sustainability of AI.
Dominic Ward is the CEO of Verne Global, a UK-based data centre operator with a 40 acre campus near Keflavik, Iceland, focused on supporting HPC IT loads.
3 ways crypto mining is impacting the data centre industry
Around the world - particularly in Russia, Eastern Europe and China - the global rise of crypto currency values has been driving an en masse industrialisation of the mining process. The trend has been bubbling away for several years, as the home mining rig has largely found itself edged out by hyperscale server farms comprising some of the largest data centres anywhere in the industry - all designed to mine crypto.
The demands placed on a facility built and run as a mining operation are somewhat different to those placed on a hyperscale cloud facility or enterprise data centre. Reliability isn’t so much of an issue; if a mine goes down for a few hours, money is lost, but your data centre won’t take half the websites in Western Europe down along with it.
On the flipside, density and cooling are much, much more important. To make a crypto mining operation profitable, you need to be harvesting more crypto currency (be it Ethereum, Dogecoin, or the perennial Bitcoin) than you’re paying for electricity by a significant margin. As a result, some of the most efficient cooling and hyper-dense rack architecture from the past few years - like two-stage liquid cooling - has originated as a crypto mining solution. Now, hyperscale cloud operators in particular are recognising the benefits of these innovations and applying them to other aspects of the data centre industry.
1. Liquid Cooling
Crypto data centres have always been as dense as possible, with their racks running at maximum capacity all day, all year round. By contrast, the average enterprise or cloud data centre isn’t necessarily running at peak capacity 24/7; workloads fluctuate with demand. However, as that demand has skyrocketed over the past year in particular, cloud and enterprise operators have looked to crypto’s preference for liquid cooling as a way to run data centres closer to the ragged edge of performance than ever before.
One example of this is LiquidStack. The Hong Kong startup makes a revolutionary two-phase liquid cooling solution for data centres, which was developed over a number of years inside Bitfury, one of the world’s leading crypto miners. “Bitfury is sharing our knowledge with the global data center community and we are excited that Microsoft and other internet giants can benefit from our years of experience and investment to best practice liquid cooling,” said Joe Capes, CEO of LiquidStack in an interview with Data Centre Magazine.
Now, LiquidStack is going mainstream, with substantiated rumours that Microsoft is looking to adopt their DataTank solutions across its ever-expanding portfolio of hyperscale cloud regions.
2. Denser HPC
One of the issues that liquid cooling solves is how to create ultra-dense server racks that can function at high temperatures. Crypto miners have been grappling with this problem for about a decade now, and the lessons they’ve learned are being happily adopted by the burgeoning data centre HPC market - which is swelling in response to greater AI adoption and increasingly-sizable data sets.
With the density that mining rigs can achieve, server architects are cramming hundreds of kilowatts into individual racks - although it should be noted that this is still relatively rare. A 2020 survey from the Uptime Institute still found that the average density of data centre racks was growing rapidly, however.
“We expect density to keep rising. Our research shows that the use of virtualization and software containers pushes IT utilization up, in turn requiring more power and cooling. With Moore’s law slowing down, improvements in IT can require more multi-core processors and, consequently, more power consumption per operation, especially if utilization is low. Even setting aside new workloads, increases in density can be regarded a long-term trend,” said the report.
In 2020, average rack densities of 20kW and higher became a reality for many data centre operator.
3. Sustainability Concerns
Now for the more worrying news. The industrial scale and massive power consumption inherent to the crypto mining business - and the negative attention that miners are now starting to receive from government - could point towards a concerning future for data centre operators in the wider industry.
Last week, the Chinese government announced that it would open an inquiry into the participation of Beijing’s largest data centre operators - which include the country’s three largest telecom firms - in crypto mining. At a time when the PRC government is attempting a significant reversal of its approach towards sustainability, the significant power draw of crypto mining activities may be one more hurdle than China cares to deal with.
The Indian government is mulling a blanket criminalisation of all crypto mining in the country and, in the US, the State of New York is also looking into tightening regulatory restrictions on the industry.
While crypto mining data centres are not the same as cloud or enterprise facilities, operators should be careful lest the ire of lawmakers be the latest trend to make its way from the crypto sector into the mainstream.