Cooling is one of the most important areas of data centre design and is responsible for a large slice of the cost of both building and running such a facility. You may have read recently about data centres being built in Iceland to take advantage of the cooler climate, but how does this work, and should we all be relocating to Iceland-based data centres?

Cooling a data centre by using colder outside air is called Free Air Cooling and it’s been established on the market for some time. The first thing to understand is what it doesn’t involve: there’s no mixing of cold, dirty air in from the outside into the clean, filtered data centre environment. Instead it uses a heat exchanging mechanism which uses the colder external air to cool the clean inside air. The advantages of this over traditional refrigeration techniques are obvious – the air outside is free, right? So surely it makes sense that by building data centres in cooler climates there are more savings to be had? Perhaps, but perhaps it’s not as clear cut as it seems.

With the likes of BMW, Google and Colt all happily admitting to using Iceland-based data centres, it might seem like a no-brainer, but there are many more factors for UK companies to consider than just colder = better. The outside air needs to be humidified and warmed up slightly for it to be useful, all of which uses energy. And air aside, there’s staffing, data sovereignty, connectivity and geology to consider.

Data centres must be built, staffed and maintained. And as a data centre provider you need to make sure you have a company you can stake your own reputation (not to mention your bank account) on, which is always harder to do when working abroad. Fancy popping over to see how it’s all going? That’s a 3 hour flight at the least. Want to take a customer for a tour of the high-tech facility to seal that contract? Forget it. And what of data sovereignty? No one can argue that data protection and isn’t at the forefront of the industry right now, and how would your customers feel about having their data stored outside the EU?

Low connectivity options and high latency was traditionally a stumbling block for Iceland-based data centre operators and, though connectivity in Iceland is improving all the time, it’s still no match for a well-connected UK-based facility. Latency from Iceland to the London Docklands is 19ms, which rules out most financial applications, as well as an increasing number of non-financial uses. Compare that to a UK data centre where it’s in the region of 1-5ms and the advantages are obvious.

In short, a-based data centre in the UK means easier staffing, connectivity, data protection and it’s visitable by potential customers. But what about that killer cooling? Climatically, the southern part of Iceland (that’s the bit that’s not covered in mountains) has a similar climate to the UK, so the real-world cooling advantages aren’t as profound as people think. The truth is that whilst there are some genuine savings to be had, only you can decide if it’s really worth the trade off in the long run.

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