- Richard M. Williams
Challenge: Staying Cool in a Crisis
Building a market takes time, patience, perseverance and the ability to apply practical knowledge to a market that needs to change. The data center market is one that is primed for change as it was at the heart of a confluence of events that dictated a new approach. The explosive rise in data and the types of devices that could access and leverage that data forced the deployment of millions of servers around the world to store, process and deliver that data. Data centers are processing zettabytes of data as consumers stream video from Netflix, search for a restaurant on Google and download the latest Grisham novel on Amazon.
Of course, the data is not the problem for the data center industry. These zettabytes of data coursing through millions of servers are thirsty, demanding terawatts of power globally. This power is being created by carbon‐based fuels at a rate so fast, that by 2020, it is estimated that the data center industry will have a carbon footprint larger than the airline industry. And that is the problem. Governments took notice, and in countries like the UK, enacted legislation to curb the carbon impact of its corporate citizens.
This confluence, of course, created opportunity. Verne Global looked to capitalize on this opportunity by tackling the power issue at the point of origination. In 2007, Verne Global decided to build a data center campus completely off the traditional grid, both in terms of power source and location. Iceland’s power grid is fueled by 100 percent hydroelectric and geothermal renewable energy. No carbon at the source meant zero carbon footprint for the thousands of servers that would one day be located at Verne Global’s campus. Iceland’s green power, because it’s based on renewable sources, is cheap ‐ up to 80% less than power options in North America and Europe. So not only is it green, companies that moved megawatts of storage to Iceland could actually save money while reducing their carbon impact.
Every great opportunity comes with inherent risks. In Iceland, to create the data center industry, Verne Global had to work with government officials, partners and entrepreneurs to ensure that the power was available, the connectivity was robust and that the business environment was primed to welcome Verne Global and others to this new market. Verne Global spent four years on this process without ever flipping a switch at the data center. That was the first risk, one that time and hard work saw the company overcome.
In 2008, Verne Global had begun to cultivate relationships with the media and analyst communities as a means to get the conversation about the data center power problem into the public debate. Connect2 Communications, as Verne Global’s Agency of Record, created a crisis communication plan for the company as one of its first priorities. Given that the site relied on geothermal activity for one of its power sources, the likelihood that one of Iceland’s many volcanoes would erupt during the company’s lifetime was real. The crisis communications plan outlined the safety measures Verne Global had architected into the site design to deal with any issues that might be related to seismic or volcanic activity. It also created a plan of action the company would follow if an event occurred, so that it could quickly get ahead of any news cycle before the media made decisions without all of the relevant facts.
Putting the Plan Into Action
On the morning of April 14, 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted, spewing volcanic ash into the sky. Verne Global put its crisis communications plan into action as trade winds spread ash across most of Western and Northern Europe, shutting down airports in dozens of countries and grounding millions of travelers.
Conversations with reporters and analysts were lively and highly interactive, with Verne Global taking an active role in starting the conversation rather than waiting to be asked for comment. Many reporters reacted with surprise when they were approached for interviews, as most thought Verne Global would shun any media attention on the issue. Surely, the reporters said, this volcano eruption would bury Verne Global’s hope of developing Iceland into a data center location. Verne Global executives, particularly its CTO Tate Cantrell, challenged this notion, asking if volcanoes stopped companies from building data centers in the Pacific Northwest, or hurricanes prohibited their operation along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Once Verne Global established that data centers had been successfully operated in locations that had inherent risks, the company moved the conversation to the planning and procedures Verne Global had put in place to address its risks.
First, as per the Crisis Management Plan, the company described its strategic location on a former NATO airbase in the Southwestern part of Iceland. The airbase was situated on one million year old bedrock, safer than any location in California with all its faults. The Verne Global team also highlighted how the location was outside of the trade wind patterns that historically had blown volcanic ash away from the site and over mainland Europe. Finally, the company walked reporters and analysts through the preventative measures the company had installed in case winds changed, measures that would ensure that any server located in its facility was able to continue operation.
When Eyjafjallajökull erupted, rather that write stories that called into question whether Verne Global’s plan for Iceland as a data center hub was feasible, reporters filed stories that listed the site’s location on a former NATO airbase in the Southwestern part of Iceland as smart planning because trade winds historically blew any ash away from the site and over Europe. And while airports across Europe were closed for weeks, Iceland’s international airport ‐‐ which sits less than five kilometers from Verne Global’s data center campus ‐‐ remained accessable.
The resulting media coverage helped establish the Verne Global team as seasoned data center executives, not merely entrepreneurs with a vision of what could be in Iceland. It helped develop a trust between the Verne Global team and the media and analyst community because the company was willing to discuss the issues it faced as it built a new industry in Iceland while tackling the power issues facing the data center industry as a whole. While Verne Global will face many challenges over its lifetime, this issue of risk is mediated by their careful site planning, and the crisis communication plan created for it by the team at Connect2 Communications.