SUSTAINABILITY FOCUS 26

How CFD-expert Wirth Research delivers AI-driven solutions at zero carbon cost By Tate Cantrell, CTO, Verne Global

Towards the end of 2021, in the first major review of climate change science since 2013, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a “code red for humanity” for the global state of climate science in its report. It demonstrates that the only way in which we can stabilise temperatures and avoid hitting a key temperature limit in the next decade is through steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Wirth Research came to a similar realisation years before the IPCC’s review. With its roots in F1 motorsports, the company originally applied its computational fluid dynamics (CFD) solutions to boost race car speed. But when its CEO, Nick Wirth, assisted NASA in a jet propulsion lab, the company discovered the true urgency of the climate crisis. Unbeknownst to many, NASA is one of the leaders in Earth science, with extensive expertise in observing climate from the vantage point of space.

Prompted by this realisation, Wirth Research then began to explore alternative use-cases for its technology to help clients across industries implement energy-saving measures, such as controlling airflow to make supermarket refrigeration more efficient – saving some supermarkets in the UK up to 40 percent of their footprint – and reducing aerodynamic drag and the carbon emissions associated with heavy goods vehicles.

As Wirth Research developed its mission to help other businesses solve energy consumption issues and improve efficiencies, it made the inevitable decision to put its own operations under a microscope and find a way to practice what it preached.

The challenge of upgrading computing power without downgrading the environment

CFD is extremely power-intensive, and Wirth Research wanted to find a way to both decrease energy consumption and run its high density compute sustainably. The issue was, the company simultaneously needed to look at substantially upgrading its power, not least because it had blown out its local power station in the UK once before. The company had thought about using a data centre in the UK to host its compute, but although this would allow it access to additional, and more stable, power, it still relied on the UK’s national grid, and therefore fossil fuels, and wouldn’t allow Wirth Research to achieve its goal of achieving carbon zero.

Wirth Research found a way to do both, and maximised the sustainability of its power-hungry operations in four key ways.

1. Optimising computational models

For its high-resolution analyses, Wirth Research performs trillions of calculations a second, with calculations often being re-computed every fraction of a second, requiring an energy-intensive high intensity computing environment capable of supporting such a workload. Despite having access to such an environment, the company nevertheless continuously innovates and optimises its computational models to be more efficient, saving time and energy expenditure. For example, when simulating thousands of millions of tiny cells of air, the higher the accuracy, the more energy is required. The company therefore adjusts the resolution of the cells within each model, using a finer sub-millimetre mesh only where needed, such as near sharp edges.

2. Leveraging renewable energy to power operations

The pandemic had most of us working from home and Wirth Research employees were no exception. This brought about one major advantage for the engineers – they realised they did not need the hardware to be located right next to them for the modelling to work effectively.

Whereas before the Wirth Research management might have seen this as a radical move, the company elected to relocate its compute to Iceland, namely to Verne Global’s data centre campus. Iceland’s national grid is powered by 100 percent renewable energy thanks to the country’s access to abundant geothermal and hydroelectric sources. Consequently, by moving its compute here and solely powering it with renewable energy sources, Wirth Research effectively brought the carbon-cost of its extremely power-intensive compute operations down to zero.

3. Improving efficiency of hardware and energy consumption

Iceland’s stable grid and year-round cool temperatures also made it an attractive choice for the CFD expert looking to revolutionise the sustainability of its power-intensive operations, as energy consumption was minimised through free air cooling.

There was also a drastic decrease in the cost that was derived from running the compute at Verne Global’s Icelandic facility, not least because the cost per kilowatt hour was far cheaper. In fact, the annual cost of using Verne Global’s data centre – with the connectivity, power and 24/7 bespoke service this entails – amounts to the same price as just three months of the company’s previous electricity bill alone in the UK.

This allowed Wirth Research to invest in upgrading its hardware. The company now runs its supercomputing-class applications on brand new Dell EMC PowerEdge servers, powered by AMD Epyc CPUs and Nvidia GPUs.

With its new, more efficient hardware, Wirth Research could design a system better suited to remote desktops, but it also meant the company needed far fewer racks in the data centre. The more efficient hardware immediately decreased the company’s space requirements, which in turn required less cooling.

Overall, through upgrading its kit and moving it to Iceland, Wirth Research consumes 25 percent less energy than when it located its high density compute onsite.

4. Focusing on sustainability closer to home

Having previously been tethered to their old office location due to the need to be within proximity to their data centre, replacing its IT kit and moving it to Iceland meant Wirth Research was no longer fixed in its location. As a result, the company took advantage of the fact many of its employees were now happy to work from home and were able to take on a much smaller office which consumes less energy than the previous site. As a further bonus, lower carbon emissions occur as a result of fewer people commuting in. Furthermore, the new office is located in an ecological business centre that creates more energy than it uses. Through relocating its high density compute to Iceland, Wirth Research could focus on achieving carbon zero back at home.

Improving energy efficiency and using truly renewable energy When we also consider that by 2030, the ICT industry is projected to account for 7 percent of the global energy demand, and as a sector eclipse the total energy consumption of whole nations, it’s clear that Wirth Research is at the forefront of a cultural shift in terms of the efficiency of high density compute.

Some companies are talking about becoming net zero while still being dependent on power generated from fossil fuels to run their compute. The actions Wirth Research has undertaken are so innovative because they have proven it is possible to be truly carbon zero through not only reducing power consumption, but also ensuring the power they do use to run their compute is renewable.

Whereas previously there might have been a blinkered focus on maximising total computational output, actions taken by companies such as Wirth Research to revolutionise the efficiency of their hardware and optimise the sustainability of their compute promise hope for IT innovation within a truly greener framework.


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