Iceland, Volcanoes and Data Centers

The volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.

Iceland’s volcanoes are in the news again, as an ash plume from a new eruption this week from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has grounded air traffic in much of Europe. The issue is that the particulates in the high-altitude ash cloud can damage aircraft engines, with potentially catastrophic results.

What might the ash cloud mean to Iceland’s data center ambitions? In early 2007 the government of Iceland began been touting the country as an affordable destination for data center development, citing its abundant supply of geothermal power. At the time, we noted that companies considering Iceland “not forget the source of all that geothermal energy: Iceland sits atop an active volcanic rift.”

In our subsequent coverage, commenters with experience in Iceland say that eruptions and earthquakes are common but mild, and usually far away from areas where data centers might be built. But what about the risk to data center equipment from particulates? Last fall data centers in Sydney had to shut down external ventilation systems during a major dust storm.

I’m not an expert on particulate filtering. But I bet some of our readers have experience with this topic. Does the volcanic ash cloud pose any risk to data centers in Iceland? How about operational issues for existing data centers in the UK and other nations being affected by the ash? Share your insights and expertise in the comments.          

UPDATE: We spoke this afternoon with Verne Global, which is building a data center at a former NATO Command Centre in Keflavik, Iceland. Verne’s chief technology officer, Tate Cantrell, said Iceland’s volcanic activity was a strategic consideration in their site location. Iceland’s predominant wind and weather pattern flows from West to East, so Verne chose a site to the west of the country’s active volcanoes, so any ash plumes would be blown away from the data center.

“There’s only a very minute chance that a plume of volcanic matter would affect us,” Cantrell said. Case in point: Flights were taking off from the airfield at Keflavik, even as air traffic in much of Europe remains grounded.

Verne has engineered its data centery for any eventuality, Cantrell said. If an unusual wind pattern blew volcanic ash toward the facility,  Verne could switch from free cooling to a closed-loop cooling system. The project, which is seeking its first tenants, is housed in former munitions buildings with reinforced roofs, which could support any ash buildup. Roof collapses from ash are a key concern for structures in areas with heavy volcanic ash accumulations.     

Volcano image by Daniel Orn via Flickr.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Denny

    No expert either, but for the UK and most of Europe there won't be any effect on data centres from this. We've been told the ash is so high up in the atmosphere that it presents no health hazard to humans, and presumably data centres too. From the ground you wouldn't know there's a problem.

  2. Data centers with air-side economizers would probably be more subject to air filters being plugged by particles because of the great volume of outside air that is used to cool. Cooling tower water would also get contaminated by particles but proper filtration of the cooling water would most likely reduce the impact. Sand storms in the Middle East are also a problem for cooling systems.

  3. I think that ash is really not a huge problem when it comes to these things. It does call for extra maintenance and you do have to design your ventilation to handle it but it's really not much of a deal killer. I of course don't work in a large datacenter here but I have worked in the telco business here and these things are not a worry. It's a problem that you are aware of could happen and design around it. Then of course you get a good warning that this is about to happen and make any last minute checks you need to do.

  4. BTW. One thing you might actually do is to put a sprinkler system close to any air intake system. Ash is fundamentally different from what you may see in a dust storm. Ash loves absorbing moisture and turns into sticky paste that is hell to clean but you could spare your filter a lot of trouble this way.

  5. dvk

    There could be temporary problems about ventilation and increased dust.Aircraft Engines and Turbines can suffer damage due to Silicon particulate matter. I feel the problems are of transient nature and soon equilibrium will be established in the atmosphere.

  6. The current volcanic activity is not so much an anomaly. Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that is currently erupting is along a belt of high geophysical activity. Several years ago we heard of a new island rising from the ocean off of Iceland. This is the same belt of activity. It is distant from population centers and viable data center locations. This region and it phenomenon are taken into consideration in the design of all electrical and communication systems. In fact, the newer cables land west of this region so that they will not be separated from the population and data centers should there be an event such as this. The older cables have alternate routes that traverse the northern edge of the country. The issue of potential contamination in Iceland or other countries needs to be monitored, but should not be much of a concern. Prudent designers using air side economization typically use a heat exchanger or high efficiency filters to trap vehicle emissions and other fine particulate. Although volcanic fallout may foul this equipment and increase maintenance costs it is highly unlikely to result in any material damage to equipment within data centers.

  7. Not only the physical aspects of the volcanic ash is something to think about but also the logistic problems it can create. How to get people and equipment to and from the DC. Its of course the same issue for hurricanes, earthquakes etc. A lot of the requirements and the multi-criteria decision process of selecting a data center location is focussing on the "internal" things of a DC. But what about the quality of DC geographical surrounding? The trend of cloud computing with the development and usage of mega data centers makes us vulnerable. The economic value that data centers are representing is huge. This is about business continuity and risk analysis based on DC geographical surrounding quality. Is there a method in doing this?

  8. Thanks for the update on the prevailing winds. Been tempted by iceland for some servers as a way of being in the middle of europe and north america this dust cloud was a bit of a worry regarding this idea.

  9. Not an expert but seems to me that regardless of wind and elevation, 750 tons per second of ash is a lot of potential. It comes down some place. Hard disk drives are almost hermetic. Seems like the activated coal filters might become clogged. There was a study in 2005 that pretty much says "no big deal" We probably could look at the impact of Alaska's Mount Redoubt volcano eruption of March 2009 for lesson learned. Disaster Recovery plans for sate data centers in Washington and Oregon may shed some light on planning based on experience. Companies like Data Clean might pick up some more business