Microsoft to Test Self-Powered Server Racks

Microsoft wants fuel cells in server racks, not outside (as at this eBay datacenter in Utah).

Microsoft has built prototype server racks with built-in fuel cells, in order to test a newly published theory that the combination would make datacenters easier to build, cheaper to operate, and far more power-efficient.

Fuel-cell technology has advanced to the point where it could represent a good option for powering datacenters, and might be small enough to allow power sources to be built right into the server racks, according to a research paper written by members of Microsoft Research and published Nov. 12 by the Association for Computing Machinery.

Microsoft is building a prototype fuel-cell server rack to test its ideas about design, but is still far from answering all the questions necessary to base whole datacenter designs on the concept, according to the paper. Among the fundamental questions still unanswered by Microsoft or other researchers: what type of fuel cell is best for datacenters, where they should be placed in electrical infrastructures, how to design server farms to use them efficiently, and whether water- or air-cooling systems will keep them running more efficiently.

Fuel cells aren’t widely used because the technology is new enough that stable versions are very expensive and have only recently hit levels of efficiency comparable to that of turbines powering traditional data grids, Microsoft Research program manager Sean James told Wired.

Microsoft has built a prototype fuel-cell-powered server rack to try to add real-world performance data to the models printed in the research paper. Fuel cells that convert hydrogen, natural gas, bio-gas or other fuel into electricity through electrochemical processes are far more efficient at powering servers than traditional electrical infrastructures, which lose power to inefficient conduction at every stage of distribution, conversion and transmission through a datacenter grid to the servers, according to the paper (full PDF available).

Fuel cells are also more reliable than power grids, can eliminate the need for diesel generators or batteries as backups in case of power outages, and curb enormous costs from the high-voltage switches, transformers and cabling required for data centers of any size.

Removing the wiring infrastructure also eliminates dozens of potential points of failure, such as the arc-faults blamed for dramatic and potentially dangerous blowouts that have delayed the opening of the National Security Administration’s massive new Utah Data Center.

Despite its optimism about embedding fuel cells in server racks, Microsoft hasn’t overcome problems in adapting the setup to changes in power demand, and in building failsafes for its fuel cells that comply with existing datacenter power- and safety regulations. “One of the dirty secrets is that conventional datacenters are not safe places as it is,” James told Wired.

Microsoft’s effort to embed fuel cells within server racks themselves is unusual, but is part of a far larger push by tech vendors and datacenter-equipment suppliers to make fuel cells practical.

As an example of that, take the thirty fuel cells that provide 8 megawatts of power for an eBay datacenter in South Jordan, Utah. The bank of Bloom Energy fuel cells uses natural gas, mixed with oxygen, to produce electricity to run the datacenter, but sits 100 feet outside the datacenter walls rather than in the server racks themselves.

The eBay plan takes power-efficiency a step further with a system designed to collect waste heat and turn it into another 5 megawatts of electricity. The Ormat-designed system is scheduled to go online in about 18 months.

Fuel-cell-driven datacenter power is also high on the agenda of the U.S. Department of Energy, which opened a datacenter at its National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Co. that is designed specifically to gather and evaluate the use of hydrogen fuel cells in datacenter applications.

Since 2004 the NREL has collected more than 2 million hours of operational data on fuel-cell development and performance, as well research on a host of other power-efficient and renewable-energy designs.