Profile Eirikur Hrafnsson

Published on June 7th, 2013 | by Anneli Hidalgo

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Revolutionary road

The economic crisis appears to slowly be loosening its tough grip on Iceland. The country is quickly becoming a data-center hotspot thanks to a 100 percent renewable energy grid and lots of cold air for cooling. Eiríkur Hrafnsson, founder and chief global strategist of the world’s first completely green public compute cloud, is one of the technology advocates leading the Icelandic green IT revolution.

The amount of CO2 generated by the IT industry’s exponentially growing online data and applications is alarming. The McKinsey’s 2007 forecast reveals that by 2020 the data industry will represent over 4 percent of total global CO2 emissions. Still, most of the world’s data centers are powered by mainly fossil fuel-based energy grids. The major running costs for data centers are electricity and cooling. Running the servers and keeping them from overheating consumes a lot of power. Big companies like Google, which recently powered its first data center with wind-power, are now feeling pressure to move away from the use of fossil fuel energy to power the energy-guzzling data centers. The heavy greenhouse gas production is one of the reasons Eiríkur Hrafnsson and Tryggvi Lárusson created GreenQloud, the first public cloud fully powered by 100 percent renewable energy resources.
“If the cheapest source is coal, the market moves faster in that direction. The energy need grows along with the storage. The production of energy is linear, and at some moment it will hit the point when we start competing with the power for homes and hospitals. The biggest waste going on right now in terms of time and resources is within government IT. There are some huge improvements that could be made to save energy and many areas that could be better connected. One main issue is that the companies serving governments are doing fine by keeping the status quo. They don’t want to move their clients, since that would of course imply losing money.”
“Seeing that emissions from the ICT-industry were increasing enormously, and that the growth of storage was going to be worse, we realized some changes had to be made. Our idea was to create a large scale public compute cloud,” says Hrafnsson.

According to a recent survey by Rackspace Hosting and the Manchester Business School, cloud computing is laying the groundwork for the next entrepreneurial boom. The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s definition of cloud computing describes it as ‘A model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.’

Increasing awareness
GreenQloud was born at the beginning of 2010. Today the company offers infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), including compute, network, and storage resources – all based on open source technologies and commodity hardware. The company has built partnerships with software, platform, and database vendors to also seamlessly provide Saas, PaS and DBaaS services. In addition, and to ensure ease of use for eco-friendly clients transferring their data and/or computing from Amazon, GreenQloud says that it is Amazon-compatible.
“When people started talking about green cloud computing in 2010, the awareness was zero. But in recent years the consciousness has been increasing quite rapidly. Besides the clean energy aspect, many see the benefits of cost-saving. We run on renewable energy. Being green is the main goal, but a secondary goal is being the easiest to use and most cost effective,” says Hrafnsson.

A convenient location
GreenQloud and other Icelandic web hosting companies differ from competitors in North America and Europe in that their data centers are powered exclusively by hydropower and geothermal energy. This is possible because of Iceland’s energy infrastructure. The country sits conveniently between the US and Europe, has a cold climate, and has huge amounts of cheap and clean geothermal energy. Low latencies between the two continents are a great plus, but the clean energy and the cool temperatures make it affordable to create and cool off the massive amount of heat given off by servers.
“I have always thought that Iceland would be a good place for data centers for clean and cheap energy. Iceland is unique in the way that we have 100 percent renewable energy and can use free air cooling. Thus, we have the advantage of using a lot less energy.
The problem was that until a few years ago we didn’t really have enough big network connections to support high-speed, low-latency data centers. This changed in the late 2000s when we started seeing the arrival of new submarine cables,” says Hrafnsson.

The current optical network in Iceland is a circular system connected to fiber optic submarine cables that connect the island to the continents of Europe and North America. Four submarine cables connect Iceland to the world; Cantat 3 (cross Atlantic cable with max 7.5 Gb/s transmission), Farice 1 (Iceland-Scotland with max 8 Tb/s transmission), Danice (Iceland-Danmark with max 20 terabits/sec. operational in 2009) and Greenland connect (Iceland-Greenland-Canada with max 96×10 Gb/sec transmission).

A country in recovery
Iceland’s nascent data center industry, powered by cheap, renewable energy, could be a growth driver in that nation’s economic recovery and the cloud computing revolution. Iceland experienced a severe economic shock when the country’s banking bubble burst in 2008. Prior to founding GreenQloud, Hrafnsson co-founded Idega Software in 2000 and served as Chief Software Engineer for its Open Source platform for eGovernment. Idega Software was one of many companies that felt the consequences of the economic situation. The company had to shut down offices in two countries and Hrafnsson teamed up with co-founder Larusson to create a new mindset for the future, starting with the foundation of GreenQloud.
“During the economic collapse in Iceland there were a lot of companies that went bankrupt. But the crisis also led to something positive; all of these creative minds were suddenly released. After a while we saw many technically skilled people starting their own companies, trying to build something new. The crisis became a great boost for many of us to think a little bit differently,” says Hrafnsson.

Promoting Icelandic cleantech
In addition to working with GreenQloud, Hrafnsson is also a founding Board Member of CleanTech Iceland, a sub-department of SI, the Federation of Icelandic Industries. The organization educates the Icelandic market on what defines a cleantech company and also recruits new members. CleanTech Iceland supports cleantech enterprises by advocating export, international, national and local research funding, new sources of investment capital, workforce development, international trade, appropriate regulation or incentives, and sustainable land-use planning and development. Its mission is to advance the adoption of clean technology and to promote Icelandic cleantech companies to the world.
“Iceland is still a bit behind. We are not at the forefront in cleantech. On the other hand, cleantech implies a very wide definition. It deals with everything from taking care of resources, and being energy efficient, to using alternative materials. And I think it was not until recently that the Icelandic green industry became aware of its potential. The organization has about thirty companies that have now realized that they are in fact cleantech companies,” he says.

Nevertheless, Iceland seems to be picking up a lot from the Nordic cleantech organizations and trying to catch up in the cleantech market.
“We are seeing signs of greater awareness and focus in several areas. For instance, there are current trials to bind the CO2 from the geothermal plants that will have negative CO2 impacts and companies using algae to produce clean energy. There is also a greater interest in e-cars and overall in changing behavior.”

Technological and environmental advocate
Besides founding and running GreenQloud and Idega Software, he has mentored and invested in other startups in Iceland and Brazil. Hrafnsson has an extensive history in freelance development projects, having secured his first significant project at age 15, when he built the first website for one of Iceland’s largest IT companies at the time. Being a serial entrepreneur has become a lifestyle.
“I’ve been working with my own companies since I was a teenager. GreenQloud is the third real company I have founded. I have participated in many others, as a developer, consultant or as an investor. But being an entrepreneur is in my opinion all about being creative and having the ability to do what you like. Even if you see something that you’ve been working on for 8 years being torn apart, you don’t give up. Most importantly, I never want to stop working in a creative environment. Otherwise, I could just as well sit in an office working with anything random and be miserable.”

Hrafnsson says that his interest in sustainability and environmental issues has always been there throughout his upbringing, but didn’t culminate until later.
“I was very affected by documentaries such as ‘A crude awakening’ and ‘An inconvenient truth’. It felt terribly annoying that there were so few people and companies that were actually doing something. Also, once you have kids you start thinking about the world in a different way. How could I live with myself without doing anything towards achieving a more sustainable society? The opportunity to work within green IT is one way of contributing,” explains Hrafnsson.

Musical passion
Alongside two decades of software development and leadership roles, Hrafnsson is also a professional classical and jazz singer. He has studied at two of Reykjavik’s finest music schools and has had various singing engagements at the Icelandic National Opera.
“My main interests are music and technology. One might think that these two subjects don’t have much of a connection, but the truth is that if you ever attend an IT networking meeting, you will often find the geekiest nerds talking about music.”

Hrafnsson is looking at a fuzzy future at the moment, he says. The near-term goal is to extend the possibilities for GreenQloud with new locations, and also to try to have a family life at the same time. “I’m 35 years old now and have been working as an entrepreneur for 20 years. It’s been a difficult journey at times, often being without a salary and working long hours and days on end. But I would not be doing this if it wasn’t so much fun. The absolute best is knowing that what you do is appreciated, that is the most rewarding part.”
Name: Eiríkur Hrafnsson
Age: 35
Lives: in Reykjavik, Iceland
Family: Wife and three children
Work: Co-founder and Chief Global Strategist at GreenQloud, Board Member of Clean Tech Iceland and a professional singer.
Favorite singers: “Dmitri Hvorostovsky, probably the best male classical singer of all time. I also love Mel Tormé.”

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