Foregrounding sustainability in modern data centres

Foregrounding sustainability in modern data centres

atNorth CEO Eyjólfur Magnús Kristinsson expands on the data centre company’s support for high-density computing with 100% renewable energy

Icelandic high-density computing firm atNorth is leading the charge for carbon-neutral colocation data centres. CEO Eyjólfur Magnús Kristinsson, previously Managing Director at Advania, which acquired the company as a smaller side project in 2011, has been CEO since that point, but devoted himself full-time to the role in 2018 as the company rapidly picked up the pace. “The reason for that is the exponential growth of data,” he explains. “And with that comes the need for computational work to crunch that data. That’s why we’re seeing the data centre industry growing by around 16% annually at the moment, which I expect to continue for at least the next five years.”

Within the data centre industry, atNorth focuses on a specific part of the market particularly suited to the infrastructure it provides across its facilities in Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. “We specialise in energy-hungry workloads that require a lot of cooling - typically these workloads include things like high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, deep learning, big data and so on. We take care of everything within the high-performance computing arena with on-demand computational resources.”

A key part of atNorth’s offering is its commitment to using 100% sustainable energy in its operations, and reducing energy use in general with initiatives such as using the naturally colder air of its northerly locations for cooling purposes. “Sustainability is a fundamental strategy and the company's mission is providing sustainable and energy-efficient solutions to its customers. As we provide a home for energy-intensive workloads, it’s important to use energy from renewable resources, but we've also designed our data centres from the ground up so we can use less energy in general. We offer customers flexible solutions to minimise their carbon footprint - not only in terms of energy but also in terms of space and infrastructure needed.” That focus on sustainability is not only to the benefit of its customers. “For our newest project in Sweden, we are working with the local district heating company, and using the excess of heat from the data centres to warm local residents.”

That new data centre is located in Kista, Stockholm, and complements atNorth’s existing offering. “We are catering to both the local market in Stockholm, which is extremely rich in high-tech companies working within our focus area of high-intensity workloads, but also the wider European market of similar companies that are looking for international colocation,” says Kristinsson. The location also represents another rich resource of renewable energy access, though the company goes further with its own innovative techniques. “For instance, we will reuse the heat generated in the data centre and transfer it to a different facility approximately 100 meters away. This obviously provides our environmentally conscious customers with best of class running on real renewables only, high energy efficiency and we are also contributing to Stockholm's goal of full carbon neutrality before 2040.”

The company’s operations are supported by the work of a number of key partners. “Our partner ecosystem is critical,” says Kristinsson. “HPE and Intel, for instance, have been working with us on the customer end, supporting us in various cases to provide on-demand solutions. We have had access to their newest technology, and support them in turn with testing. They have certainly become very valuable and strategic partners for us.” atNorth also works with valued partners on the infrastructure end of the equation. “SubZero and Systemair provide us with cooling technologies. We've tried several solutions in cooling, and when it comes to natural airflow cooling, Systemair and SubZero have proven to be the most reliable providers.”

Like all companies worldwide, atNorth has had to reckon with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Last year we needed to adapt to a new reality and we will continue to do so. For us, this has meant finding new ways of providing the services we do. Strict travel restrictions meant that we needed to find new ways of meeting with our potential and existing customers, who rely on us to service the equipment they host with us.” Kristinsson expects some of the changes the pandemic has wrought to become permanent fixtures. “I think it’s strengthened the relationship that we have with our customers. I doubt that many will revert to the old mode of flying in their own technicians. I'm sure that the pandemic has imposed irreversible changes on our business - both in terms of customer service but also how we approach our customers.”

Partly to thank for its resistance to the pandemic is the culture present at the organisation. “I like to empower my employees and listen very carefully to everyone's ideas and thoughts,” says Kristinsson. “We have incredible talent in our company among our employees, and I basically see my role as being to nurture that talent. It’s a very Nordic leadership style, which works particularly well in a small company like atNorth. It's very important to enhance the dynamics of a flat structure with openness and transparency, so everyone can know how important they are to executing our strategy.”

Looking to the future, Kristinsson expects high-density workloads to continue to play a vital role in powering the rapid growth of the data centre sector. “It’s all derived from emerging technologies such as 5G, IoT, AI, deep learning and more. We are specifically catering to this fastest-growing segment within the tech sector.” He’s clear that atNorth will continue to ensure that sustainability remains at the heart of the conversation through its sector-leading solutions. “We want to provide the best service to our customers in this space, while obviously using renewable energy only to do, and give them higher energy efficiency than competitors.”


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