Data centers explore novel ways to cut energy use

Data center operators met last week to explore some novel ways to reduce their energy consumption.

Putting data centers on decommissioned ships and reusing hot water from cooling systems to fill the town swimming pool were among the wackier ideas floated at the Data Center Energy Summit last week.

Data center operators came together to compare notes about the best ways to tackle rising energy consumption at their facilities. Ideas ranged from the exotic to the more down to earth, like improving air-flow management and using outside air in colder climates to cool equipment.

After a brief lull a few years ago, a new wave of data center construction and expansion is under way, stretching the power and cooling capacities of existing facilities and putting pressure on utilities' electrical grids, speakers said.

Subodh Bapat, vice president for energy efficiency at Sun Microsystems, described a perfect storm of factors that are forcing data centers to become more power efficient.

The electricity consumed by microprocessors is increasing by 16 per cent per year as they become more powerful, he said, which contributes to a 14 per cent increase in the power consumed by each new generation of servers. At the same time, energy prices in the US have increased by about 12 per cent on average for the past three years and are expected to keep climbing.

That's forcing some data centers to consider unusual solutions. One large health-care center is looking at reusing hot water expelled by its cooling systems to do its laundry, Bapat said. A hosting company in the Northeast is freezing water overnight, when the cost of electricity is cheaper, and then blowing air over the ice during the day to provide cold air for cooling systems.

Another company hopes to put portable data centers on ships docked at port, giving it "the biggest heat sync in the world [the ocean] to get rid of waste heat," Bapat said.

Most people at the summit here were looking for more down-to-earth solutions. They were offered by several large data centers who discussed results from pilot tests designed to help show the real-world savings offered by from various energy-saving techniques.

One of the most effective is better air-flow management, so that cold air pumped in to cool equipment doesn't mix with hot exhaust air coming out, said Bill Tschudi of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Many data centers use alternating hot and cold aisles to keep warm and cold air separate, but that method is only partially effective because the air mixes in the spaces above the aisles, Tschudi said.

Oracle tested "hot-aisle containment" at a data center in Austin, Texas, which involves building an enclosure around server racks so that the hot exhaust can be siphoned off. Cooling systems account for as much as half the energy consumed by some data centers, said Mukesh Khattar, who heads Oracle's energy efforts.

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