Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Taking the Polar Plunge into the Node Pole 

Nature doesn’t charge for air conditioning. That’s important for big tech companies who look to save their bottom line along with the environment as they build massive data centers to store and process their massive data. The Node Pole, an efficient data center group, looks to take advantage of that cooling and attract potential facilities to the frozen tundra of northern Sweden.

Nature doesn’t charge for air conditioning. That’s important for big tech companies who look to save their bottom line along with the environment as they build massive data centers to store and process their massive data.

The Node Pole, an efficient data center group, looks to take advantage of that cooling and attract potential facilities to the frozen tundra of northern Sweden.

Among all the cooling techniques out there, from running computational fluid dynamics models for improving air flow in small-to-medium sized data centers to coursing non-conductive liquid through IT system such that it carries away heat more efficiently, one of the most environmentally friendly methods, and one that virtually guarantees a lower PUE, is simply plopping down a data center in a cold climate and letting the cold winter air (and cool summer night air) do the cooling.

When GCR recently spoke with Power Assure CTO Clemens Pfeiffer, he noted that the only surefire way to get a datacenter PUE under 1.3 was to put it in a location where no one really wanted to venture because it was too cold. The Node Pole group hopes people will get over the biting cold and the endless winters to put data centers in its region.

Some prominent companies have already taken the polar plunge. Facebook, for example, announced in October of 2011 the planning of a data center near Luleå. Indeed, for the most part, the ring is situated around the university town of Luleå, where a prominent data center technologies program exists. As a result of this initiative, the university has seen a significant increase in its tech interest.

“We have been educating data technicians since the early '80s, but right now we are experiencing a previously unseen peak in interest and applications from new students. In fact, we are currently the university in Sweden that is seeing the biggest increase in student applications,” said Johan Sterte, vice chancellor at Lulea University of Technology 

The Node Pole hopes to be the Magrathea of really cold data centers in that they have several sites designated for customized data center setup, almost all of which shall be powered by some combination of water and wind.

Among the benefits The Node Pole offers to potential data center facilities, the first and foremost is the cold. “The Node Pole is at the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, and is the coldest region in Sweden, making it perfect for data centers establishment,” they note. “In fact, the air temperature has not been higher than 30 degrees Celsius for more than 24 hours in total since 1961.”

This may not be a ringing endorsement for someone looking to move there, but it is for a computing facility. Recently announced and built datacenters such as the MGHPCC in Massachusetts, the Apple center in Pineville, Oregon, the Google facility in Finland, and the Verne Global site in Iceland all plan to rely on outside air or water to at least partially cool their equipment. With the possible exception of the Finnish facility, northern Sweden’s ability to cool data centers year-round gives it a financial and environmental advantage.

Beyond that, Sweden’s technological capabilities are renowned across Europe. According to The Node Pole, Sweden is ranked first in the continent in technology readiness, ICT use, and broadband quality. All of those are huge considerations for institutions looking to connect their data centers to their end users across the world.

Further, building a data center represents a significant investment, which is why one doesn’t generally see them being built along the fault lines of California. Sweden experiences relatively little seismic activity. Finally, although this isn’t a particularly large consideration in these times, The Node Pole touts the fact that Sweden hasn’t been to war since 1814 (that’s right, they didn’t participate in either of the World Wars).

So after all this, why is a good portion of The Node Pole’s 20+ potential sites still unoccupied? One of the first and more obvious answers is The Node Pole is still relatively new and companies don’t just decide every day to build a new datacenter.

On the other hand, there may be a legitimate monetary disadvantage. Imagine Apple decides to occupy one of The Node Pole’s sites. Would an Apple data center technician rather live in Maiden, North Carolina (near Research Triangle Park and the growing Triangle area), Pineville, Oregon (near Portland), Reno, or northern Sweden?

Apple would likely have to pay its Sweden technicians a little extra for living in a place that is covered in snow for most of the year. Further, northern Sweden’s winter features stretches where the sun doesn’t rise for days at a time. Pfeiffer corroborated this notion when he noted places that were cold enough for these data centers weren’t exactly the most prime places to live (it should be noted that northern Swedish summers are remarkably pretty, if brief).

With that being said, The Node Pole does offer optimal cooling conditions for a potential data center along with virtually 100 percent renewable energy resources to power the IT functions. Fans of maintaining a low institutional PUE could look to The Node Pole in the months and years to come. Fans of living in a place where the sun rises every day might not.

If the former wins out, the Luleå region could become an unlikely tech haven.

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