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Data Center Best Practices

Leading-edge operators and consultants share their tips on building ultraefficient, ultrasecure, and ultrareliable facilities.

There are data centers, and then there are data centers. The first kind ranges from the overheated, wire-tangled, cramped closets that sometimes also host cleaning supplies to the more standard glass-house variety of years past. The second kind--and the topic of this article--cool with winter air, run on solar power, automatically provision servers without human involvement, and can't be infiltrated even if the attacker is driving a Mack truck full-throttle through the front gate.

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These "badass" data centers--energy efficient, automated, hypersecure--are held up as models of innovation today, but their technologies and methodologies could become standard fare tomorrow.

Everything at Equinix has been thought through for security -- Photo by Mark Richards

Everything at Equinix has been thought through for security

Photo by Mark Richards
Rhode Island's Bryant University sees its fair share of snow and cold weather. And all that cold outside air is perfect to chill the liquid that cools the university's new server room in the basement of the John H. Chafee Center for International Business. It's just one way that Bryant's IT department is saving 20% to 30% on power consumption compared with just a year ago. "We've come from the dark ages to the forefront," says Art Gloster, Bryant's VP of IT for the last five years.

Before a massive overhaul completed in April, the university had four "data centers" scattered across campus, including server racks stuffed into closets with little concern for backup and no thought to efficiency. Now Bryant's consolidated, virtualized, reconfigured, blade-based, and heavily automated data center is one of the first examples of IBM's young green data center initiative.

IBM practices what it preaches, spending $79 million on its own green data center in Boulder, Colo. It spends $10 million a month on energy for all its data centers and hopes to keep the same environmental footprint through massive data center expansions.

Microsoft and Google also are putting heavy emphasis on environmental and energy concerns in building out their massive data centers, some of which cost upward of $500 million. Energy consumption at Microsoft's new data center in Ireland is half that of similar-sized data centers with similar configurations, says Rob Bernard, Microsoft's new chief environmental officer. "We looked at every aspect of where to site the building, how to drive more efficiency in the data centers," Bernard says. Google, while tight lipped on details, is careful to locate its data centers near clean power sources.

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But for Bryant, it's more than cheap or even clean power. It used to be that most power outages would shut the network down. The last power outage before Bryant opened its new data center took out the air conditioning, but not the servers themselves. Bryant was forced to use portable air conditioners just to get basic apps up and running. American Power Conversion alarms that register poor power or problematic temperatures went off all the time, but the university could do nothing about them. "There was no air conditioning distribution system in there," says Gloster. "It was all just one big pot, coming out of one duct."

Now the data center has a closed-loop cooling system using ethylene glycol, chilled by outside air when it's cold enough. On a cold December day, the giant APC chiller sits encased in snow, cooling the ethylene glycol. Rich Bertone, a Bryant technical analyst, estimates a 30% to 40% savings on cooling costs compared with more common refrigerant-based air conditioning.

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