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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Interesting Article on the Electricity and Efficiency of a Data Center

Having just met with the utility mentioned in this article last week, I thought it was an interesting read because it points out a major disconnect between greenness/efficiency and SLA's which drive the data center business.

I think there is a market for this kind of approach, however it is the segment of the market that does not require an SLA of any kind or has live-live replicated environments.

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 03, 2009 | Page 1B
A data center under construction at McClellan Park has won the nation's highest green-building rating for its groundbreaking, energy-saving, low-carbon-emitting "air-side economizers."

Engineers call it "free cooling" technology.

Anyone else would call it opening the windows.

"Outside air is an absolute must now," said Bob Sesse, chief architect at Advanced Data Centers of San Francisco, developer of the McClellan project. "It never made any sense not to open the window."

The windows in this case are 15-foot-high metal louvers that run the 300-foot length of the building, a former military radar repair shop. Inside, a parallel bank of fans will pull outside air through the filter-backed louvers, directing it down aisles of toasty computer servers.

The company figures it can get by without electric chilling as much as 75 percent of the year, thanks in part to Delta breezes that bring nighttime relief to the otherwise sizzling Sacramento region.

Data centers are among the biggest energy hogs on the grid. These well-secured facilities are the "disaster recovery" backups for banks, insurers, credit card companies, government agencies, the health care industry and other businesses that risk severe disruption when computer systems fail.

They house rows of high-powered computer servers, storage devices and network equipment – all humming and spewing heat around the clock, every day of the year.

Large "server farms" rival a jumbo-jet hangar in size and an oil refinery in power use. California has hundreds of them, including RagingWire Enterprise Solutions and Herakles Data in the Sacramento region.

Almost all are designed so that only a small amount of outside air enters, lest dust invade the high-tech equipment's inner circuitry and short out the works. Indoor air chillers run with abandon to make absolutely sure the vital processors don't overheat and crash.

Now, with energy prices rising, bottom lines dropping and computer equipment becoming more powerful – with hotter exhaust to prove it – data center developers realize the perfect computing environment is the enemy of the good.

"It's a return-on-investment question," said Clifton Lemon, vice president of marketing for Rumsey Engineers, an Oakland firm that specializes in green-building design.

"People are beginning to realize they can build data centers with the same performance, reliability and safety and save lots of money on electricity."

Manufacturers of data-center equipment are fast meeting the energy challenge, said KC Mares, a Bay Area energy-efficiency consultant.

"Just in the last several months, we are seeing a new generation of servers giving us dramatically increased performance while consuming no more power than the previous generation," Mares said.

The green factor also looms larger in the marketing of data centers.

"We have recently replaced our air-cooled chiller system with a more efficient water-cooled system and doubled our cooling capacity," Herakles touts on its Web site.

Not to be outdone, RagingWire boasts on its own site of a recent savings of 250,000 kilowatt-hours a month – enough to power about 1,700 homes in the Sacramento area – by improving its chilled water plant and cooling efficiency.

But data centers continue to run computer-room air conditioners during many hours in which the outside air is cool enough to do the job, according to engineers who research high-tech buildings for the federal Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"We wondered, 'Why are people doing this?' and what we found out is that the data industry had grown up this way back from the days of mainframes," said William Tschudi, principal researcher in the lab's high-tech energy unit.

The tape drives and paper punch cards in the giant mainframe computers of the 1960s and 70s were more sensitive to dirt than today's equipment. But while computing hardware grew more resilient to the elements, manufacturers held firm to their recommended ranges of operations on temperature, humidity and air quality.

"They had this myth built up that you had to have a closed system," Tschudi said.

Yet modern servers actually could handle a much broader range of environmental conditions, with protective coatings on circuit boards and hermetically sealed hard drives.

Microsoft Corp. broke a mental barrier last year when it tested a rack of servers for seven months in a tent outside one of its data centers in the rainy Seattle area. The equipment ran without fail, even when water dripped on the rack.

Similarly, recent experiments by the Berkeley lab engineers found that suspended particles in data centers drawing outside air for cooling were well within manufacturers' recommended ranges.

The "free cooling" system accounts for most of the 30 percent energy savings that Advanced Data Centers expects to gain over conventional data centers. The balance would come from efficiencies in electric fan systems, air chillers, lighting and battery backups. The project's first phase – a 70,000-square-foot center – is scheduled for completion this fall.

Last year, the company built a 45-megawatt substation to support long-term growth of up to 500,000 square feet across four buildings. As an incentive to follow through on its energy-saving plans, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District gave it a break on electricity rates, a discount worth $80,000 a year, said Mike Moreno, a key account manager with the utility.

Another bonus: SMUD, together with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and California's other major utilities, recently gave Advanced Data a $150,000 "savings by design" award.

On top of that, the U.S. Green Building Council awarded the company its highest rating – platinum – under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

If the center operates up to expectations, it will be the most energy-efficient data center known, Tschudi said.

"I think it's achievable."

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