The Facility Technologist: Data Center Evolution

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the September 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager 

One of the most notable intersections of technology and facilities is the data center. These bastions of technology have served organizations for decades in much the same fashion, with little change for most of their history.

Until recently, data centers in many facilities were essentially the same as those from the 1960s—plenty of power and cooling, raised floors, and racks of equipment—nothing truly new. But like almost every other facility technology, data centers are undergoing a truly dramatic evolution, with new approaches that might supplant traditional data center designs in coming years.

The first new evolution of the data center is in innovative approaches that go beyond the usual high efficiency HVAC systems. One example is Yahoo’s data center in New York that uses outside air to cool its servers (instead of using chillers like most data centers). The designers wanted to take advantage of the site’s ample lake breezes, so they studied structures that would maximize natural airflow and found inspiration in a most unusual place: a chicken coop. The classic chicken coop design naturally vents hot air out from the roof’s peak while drawing in cooler air at the base of the structure.

They used this design in the new data center, and the results were impressive. Yahoo’s new data center, which opened in late 2010, uses less than 1% of its energy for cooling, compared to a traditional data center that uses up to half its total electricity for cooling.

Another unexpected technique was used by Google in its Douglas County, GA facility, where sewer water is being used to help cool the data center (yes, you read that right, sewer water). Google has built a sewage treatment plant that siphons off and cleans some of the sewage generated by the local community. The cleaned sewage is then used in the air conditioning cooling tower before it is cleaned even further and then sent back into the Chattahoochee River—from which it was initially drawn for the area’s water system.

These are incremental improvements on the old data center concept, but they are not nearly as revolutionary as the next innovation: self contained data centers in shipping containers. IT hardware companies are building complete data centers inside those metal shipping containers you see on trucks, trains, and ships. These self-contained units come complete with servers and network equipment and can be easily and quickly shipped anywhere in the world. Cooling is provided either by connecting to existing building HVAC or by adding a second container with HVAC equipment.

Container data centers offer many advantages over traditional brick and mortar data centers. Consider the HP EcoPOD, a completely self contained data center with cooling that can provide the IT capacity of a large data center in a box that is one tenth the size, requires one quarter the cost, uses only 5% of the energy, and is deployed in one eighth the time. And they can be located in areas not suitable for traditional data centers, like warehouse space or even parking lots. The lower cost and flexibility containers offer is important in today’s fast moving technology world, where sudden IT upscaling can be the difference between success and failure.

But some designers have taken the container concept even further by miniaturizing the data center into a phone booth sized, self-enclosed box complete with cooling. AOL, which has over 60,000 servers, is experimenting with these units as a way to deploy capacity quickly. As a test, the company has placed one of these units outside in a field behind a more traditional data center, and it is working just fine despite the weather and heat it must endure.

Data centers are also showing up in some very unusual places. Host to WikiLeaks and many other sites, the Pionen Data Center in Sweden is completely underground and situated inside a former military bunker designed to survive a nuclear blast. It looks like something out of a James Bond film. And a Barcelona supercomputing center was built inside a cathedral, complete with stained glass windows.

But perhaps the ultimate advancement for most facility’s data centers would be a vanishing act. As cloud computing becomes more popular, many organizations are choosing to outsource the hosting of their IT systems to vendors, eliminating the need for on premise data centers.

Clearly, managers who deal with data centers are going to have to rethink some well worn concepts and approaches as these technology intensive facilities continue to evolve.  

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