Green your data centre – without ending up in the Job Centre

Budget and planet-saving technology ideas


Going Green: Tactics (Part 2) Data centres are big, noisy places that seem to have an emphasis on generating heat and making lots of bright lights flash. The first time you visit one, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the service provider's emphasis was on anything but the green credentials.

And of course you'd occasionally be quite right: there are DCs out there that don't focus at all on the environmental side of service provision. Conversely, though, there are plenty that do – as they realise that there are savings to be made through the application of some care and common sense.

You may think that the power requirement of your installation is small beer in the big picture. However, when you consider the size of the global data centre market, millions of negligible installations add up to a significant whole.

Consider something I spotted in Google's blurb when I was researching this feature: “Google uses very little of the world's electricity (less than 0.01 per cent).“

I think I'm justified in thinking that 0.01 per cent of the world's electricity is still an absolute shedload – so even if a provider can lop 10 or 20 per cent off its power consumption, it's both saving the planet and conserving a barrowload of raw cash. And if thousands of providers can do the same, it's a massive deal.

I'll come shortly to the more conventional approaches one sees to environmental considerations in data centres, but before that, let's look at some of the less conventional going around.

Back in the old days, when people didn't all have their own home boilers, it was common for local service providers to generate heat and pipe it around the local area as hot water or steam. In recent years this concept has come back into fashion. And guess what? Data centre providers have started to jump on the bandwagon of becoming heat providers for just this purpose – so they pipe off (and sell) their waste heat to provide warmth to the local area.

As we all know, data centres have raw power coming in through the wall and into a bank of Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs). The smooth, reliable power is then delivered to the hosting rooms via copper cables, and then to the individual servers in the cabinets via power distribution units; diesel generators sit at the side to kick in when the power goes off to ensure that the kit stays alive once the UPS has run down.

There's another radical idea, though, that completely capsizes the approach of providing UPS service in the data centre: in short, don't. Look in a server power supply unit and something you'll find a lot of is air. So why not throw away the socking big UPSs in the back room of the data centre and instead put small UPS capabilities in the server PSUs themselves?

Sounds barking, but it's becoming a reality; in fact there's a flavour of this called Local Energy Storage, or LES, that's advocated by a small US outfit called Microsoft.

By eliminating the need for rooms full of UPSs you can either build a smaller data centre (and hence spend less money and use fewer materials than you otherwise would have done) or build data centres the same size but have fewer of them. Oh, and into the bargain you save a bit of electrical efficiency because there's always some loss between the ingress and egress points of the UPS itself.

Next page: Cunning cooling

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