The world’s first low-power data center running fully on renewables is built with a Proxmox VE cluster and Ceph storage, and is operated at a zero-emission research station on Antarctica. It is the world’s “coolest” data center.
Antarctica is the Earth’s southernmost, coldest, driest, and windiest continent. No humans ever populated Antarctica except for a couple of thousand scientists living nowadays semi-permanently on scientific research stations, and a few former whaling settlements. For the last ten years the Belgian state and the International Polar Foundation have been operating one of the new batch of research stations built during the International Polar Year 2007-2009, called Princess Elisabeth Antarctica.
The First Zero-Emission Polar Research Station
Princess Elisabeth station is special in two ways: First, as Antarctica is difficult to reach most research stations are located at the coast for easier access. Only a few are situated a little farther inland, Princess Elisabeth being one of them. The station is in East Antarctica at 220km from the coast. The closest neighbors are a Russian station at 431 km distance, and a Japanese station 648 km away. Princess Elisabeth station opens up a wide new area for polar research in an incredible pristine environment.
Secondly, the station is special because it is the world's first zero-emissions research station in Antarctica running fully on renewable and carbon-neutral energy and operating an energy efficient data center.
“Coolest” Proxmox data center completely powered by wind and sun
Thomas Petracca, IT architect at Eomnia, is the technology adviser for the International Polar Foundation. He is responsible for implementing and maintaining the station’s IT infrastructure. The antarctic data center is built with Proxmox VE and provides state-of-the-art storage and data recovery for scientific instruments, communications, and station monitoring.
To run a research station and a data center inland of Antarctica is a challenge. Meteorological conditions are harsh on top of the Utsteinen Ridge where the futuristic looking passive building of Princess Elisabeth station is anchored to the granite. Temperatures range between -50°C to -5°C, the strong katabatic winds rush down the elevated slopes of the ice sheets. Constant darkness changes with months of constant sunlight. During the austral summer season there is 24 hours of daylight during 100 days out of 120 comprising the season.
The hostile conditions at Princess Elisabeth were turned to advantage: Almost all of the station is covered with photovoltaic and thermal solar panels producing electricity and hot water when the sun is shining. They consist of redundant solar clusters of 15 Kw and 38 Kw. Nine wind turbines, 6 Kw each, turn the strong winds into electricity all year round. In total, the station produces an energy excess which can be stored in a battery room on four interconnected battery clusters of 8000 Ah capacity. For security and backup two generators are on site
The green energy sources create all the electricity needed to operate the entire station including the data center. Running fully on renewables makes Princess Elisabeth Antarctica the first of its kind.
Modernizing the inefficient, power-intense data center
Between 25-40 scientist live on the station doing field research during 4 months of the year. The scientific field studies they conduct are data and resource intensive and include projects such as ice mass measurements, meteorological monitoring, or exploration of the microbial diversity,...to mention only a few. The unique location away from the continental edge provides access to a wide variety of environments for study which help for example to understand the impact of humans on climate change.
The initial IT architecture on the station consisting of two standalone, reliable industrial PCs was planned and implemented by Thomas from Eomnia more than ten years ago. They were mainly used for the management of the Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. Thomas maintained the IT infrastructure during the on-site season in summer, and via remote satellite connection in winter.
However, energy efficient technology evolved and in 2017 Eomnia advised on strategy and the roll-out of a network and server upgrade to reduce energy consumption and adapt to latest technologies.
Fail-over, redundancy, and 2000 Watt savings with a Proxmox VE and Ceph cluster
Most scientific instruments as well as the station’s control system, a micro smart grid, now run virtualized on the Proxmox VE cluster. The multi-node server cluster is built on customized chassis based on Supermicro equipment and Proxmox VE software. The main focus of the system is on energy efficiency, redundancy and scalability.
“We provided a new customized open-source virtualization and storage environment based on Proxmox VE architecture integrating software-defined storage solution Ceph. This way we could not only save over 2000 Watt at the research station but finally provide fail-over and redundancy for the scientific and station systems.” Thomas Petracca
After perfecting this unique combination Thomas could gain a powerful but low-energy consuming virtualization environment. Using Ceph storage and combining it with SaaS and IaaS cloud services Eomnia is now able to provide on-demand storage and virtual machines for the research station. Thanks to a reliable satellite link provided by the company SES (based in Luxembourg), this is possible on both, local and cloud architecture.
“We can control, store, and backup data directly or in the cloud via remote control. Compared to other commercial products, which mostly rely on separate and dedicated hardware for SAN, NAS, and hypervisor, the key combination of our selected Supermicro equipment and Proxmox architecture resulted in a very competitive and efficient setup for the research station.”
Micro Smart Grid System prioritizing energy consumption
Princess Elisabeth Station is managed by a micro smart grid system. The micro smart grid is a small-scale version of an electrical grid controlling the generation, distribution, and regulation of the electricity flow. All of the station’s systems are integrated and piloted by a programmable logic controller (PLC), the “brain” of the station, ensuring optimal and secure working and living conditions inside the station.
The smart grid is based on the principle of energy prioritization, and it functions like a smart organism. If energy is low, the smart grid technology shuts down the various systems according to their energy levels and priority. Intensive computing processes will for example only take place in case there is enough or a surplus of energy. Security and life support systems will be the last to be switched off. During eight months of winter, when the station is not occupied, staff controls the smart grid remotely via satellite.
“Proxmox VE is the core of the system during off-season,” explains Thomas. “The Proxmox VE HA cluster controls our automation. If we lose it, we’d lose control of our scientific instruments or of the data repatriation. It is really business critical. There are some low-power redundancy solutions, but just for keep-alive purposes.”
Real-time data repatriation via satellite ground station
Princess Elisabeth Station is permanently linked to Belgium via a satellite antenna which was built by SES. This is a crucial feature of the station and will allow scientists to send scientific data to their laboratories worldwide in real-time.
The satellite link allows for efficient communication with remote members of the team and enables high-speed transfer of data collected in the field. Beyond the scientific added value of the satellite link-up with the station, the main advantage is the ability to remotely operate the station, thus ensuring best efficiency for the micro smart grid's energy management.
Proxmox servers heating the antarctic station
Providing storage and computing power on exceptional locations like Antarctica really offers some special opportunities and challenges. It might seem intuitive to use the cold antarctic air to cool the systems. But in fact the preferred solution at Princess Elisabeth polar station is to distribute the heat from the servers into heating the research and living modules of the station.
“As a result we could significantly reduce the power consumption for heating these areas,” Thomas says. “This results in an additional reduction of the stations total energy consumption freeing resources. The significant power reduction we achieved in total with Proxmox VE and Ceph technologies allowed us to re-align the station’s power budget.”
With the additional budget available, the International Polar Foundation is now investing in new innovative projects.
With the successful implementation of open-source Proxmox VE virtualization platform with integrated Ceph storage at Princess Elisabeth research station, Eomnia and the IPF could modernize the antarctic data center, increase energy efficiency and sufficiency, and can now re-align the available budget to invest in new developments.
IT architect, Eomnia
Eomnia's core business is data center & wireless deployments. The latest developments in software-defined networking (SDN) technique gave us the opportunity to provide data center technologies to the most demanding & remote places. Our IAAS & SAAS knowledge combined with our in depth knowledge in wireless technologies (VSAT, LTE, LORA, point-to-point, SD WAN ...) offers us a unique advantages to provide technologies such as machine learning, neural networks, monitoring, etc ... to high availability & remote environments. More at http://www.eomnia.be
About International Polar Foundation
The Brussels-based International Polar Foundation (IPF) was founded by Belgian engineer, mountain guide and polar explorer Alain Hubert with Prof. Hugo Decleir and Prof. André Berger in 2002 to highlight the role of polar science in planning for the future. The innovative and sustainable "Zero-Emission" Princess Elisabeth research station is a high-profile project initiated by the IPF and its partners. It is jointly run by the Belgian State and the IPF. More at http://www.polarfoundation.org/