HP, Apple, and the Quest for the Energy-Efficient Data Center

Is it possible to build a data center that requires no net energy from the local power grid?

Hewlett-Packard thinks so. In late May, the company revealed the architecture for what it called the “first net zero energy data center,” backed by research that suggested organizations could cut total power usage by 30 percent and dependence on the grid by 80 percent.

“Information technology has the power to be an equalizer across societies globally, but the cost of IT services, and by extension the cost of energy, is prohibitive and inhibits widespread adoption,” Cullen Bash, distinguished technologist at HP and interim director of HP Labs’ Sustainable Ecosystems Research Group, wrote in a statement attached to the unveiling.

The HP Net-Zero Energy Data Center, he added, “not only aims to minimize the environmental impact of computing, but also has a goal of reducing energy costs associated with data-center operations to extend the reach of IT accessibility globally.”

In practice, reducing a data center’s energy load involves a combination of hardware and precise scheduling. After outfitting the facility with solar paneling, administrators can schedule noncritical, delay-tolerant workloads for daylight hours, when photovoltaic energy generation is at its height, in order to reduce the servers’ overall demand on nonrenewable resources.

Other architectural elements include a prediction module that relies on analytics software to predict spikes in data center demand and availability of renewable energy (among other resources and costs), a planning module that balances workloads for optimal energy expenditure, an execution module for managing consumption in real time, and a verification and reporting module.

In addition to solar power, a data center could also draw from renewable energy sources such as wind or hydro. Compartmentalizing air conditioning could also help moderate the power load.

Facebook

Other data centers all over the world have embraced designs meant to lower energy costs. For example, Facebook’s data center in Prineville, Oregon features a outside-air evaporative cooling and humidification system, along with a ductless air distribution system that can recirculate hot air or eject it from the building altogether.

Facebook engineers also made a point to weed electrical inefficiencies from the design. (Facebook’s Open Compute Project is dedicated to creating extremely efficient computing infrastructure at a lower cost, which involves custom-building servers, software and data centers from the ground up.)

Apple

Meanwhile, Apple’s massive data center in Maiden, North Carolina reportedly draws its energy (totaling some 20 megawatts at full capacity) from renewable sources, including some onsite ones. “We’re building out own facilities that will provide over 60 percent of the clean power we need,” the company wrote in a statement on its Website. “We’re building what will be the nation’s largest private solar arrays and the largest non-utility fuel cell installation operating anywhere in the country.”

The Maiden facility also relies on energy-efficient design, including a white cool-roof design, recycled and locally sourced construction materials, and real-time energy monitoring and analytics. Apple claims it purchases 100 percent renewable energy for other facilities around the world.

Apple, Facebook and other companies are demonstrating that a data center can indeed be run with considerable energy efficiency. HP could help evolve that initiative a little further. And if these concepts can be scaled in a way so that other data centers can take advantage of them, so much the better—because the cost of energy from the grid isn’t likely to drop precipitously anytime soon.

 

Image: Alex Mit/Shutterstock.com

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