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Data Center Best Practices

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

That's not the only innovative way to keep things cool. The University of California at Berkeley is considering using a huge defunct particle-accelerator chamber as a reservoir for coolant to essentially "store cold" until it's needed, says IBM VP Steven Sams, head of the company's data center strategy consultancy. Google says it's a strong believer in much cheaper evaporative cooling (a.k.a. swamp coolers) in warm, dry climates. Co-location vendor Equinix has a data center that makes ice overnight when power is cheaper and uses the melting ice to cool during the day.

Another unusual step Bryant has taken is to build on grade, with no raised flooring. The university did it because of space constraints, but Forrester Research analyst James Staten says some of the largest tech companies are turning that building design into a trend for other reasons. "The new cooling systems really work better when they drop cold air down from the aisle rather than blow it up from below," Staten says. "This is true if you're using air cooling or the new liquid cooling." That's a controversial view: IBM's Sams says getting rid of raised floors isn't efficient at scale.

HP's cell architecture isolates cooling needs

HP's cell architecture isolates cooling needs
Consolidation was one of the main goals of Bryant's data center upgrade. The initial strategy was to get everything in one place so the university could deliver on a backup strategy during outages. Little thought was given to going green. However, as Bryant worked with IBM and APC engineers on the data center, going through four designs before settling on this one, saving energy emerged as a value proposition.

The final location was the right size, near an electrical substation at the back of the campus, in a lightly traveled area, which was good for the data center's physical security. Proximity to an electrical substation was key. "The farther away the power supply, the less efficient the data center," Bertone says. Microsoft and Equinix both have data centers with their own substation., a small Internet hosting company that hosted the Live Earth concert series online, went for a cleaner power supply when it converted to solar power in 2001. An array of 120 solar panels sits on the company's 1-1/3-acre property. "We saw that our costs were going to continually go up and said this was probably the right thing to do, too," says CTO Phil Nail.

It cost about $100,000 to outfit the company with solar panels, but Nail says AISO has made that money back and has continued to look for ways to cut its energy use even further, virtualizing almost every app running in its data center and pulling in cold air whenever the outside temperature drops below 50 degrees.

Bryant is in the midst of deploying software that automatically manages server clock speed to lower power consumption, something that IBM co-developed with APC. Right now, APC technologies monitor and control fan speed, power level used at each outlet, cooling capacity, temperature, and humidity. Power is distributed to server blades as they need it.

When power goes out, Bryant no longer has to take the data center offline or bring out the portable air conditioning. A room near the data center hosts an APC Intelligent Transfer Switch that knows when to switch power resources to batteries, which can run the whole system for 20 minutes. If power quality falls out of line, the data center automatically switches to generator power and pages Bertone. The generator can run for two days on a full tank of diesel.

Other companies, including co-location provider Terremark Worldwide, are doing away with battery backup in some places, opting for flywheels. These heavy spinning wheels from companies such as Active Power can power equipment just long enough for generators to start.

Since Bryant doesn't have to constantly worry about data center reliability, it can focus on new strategic initiatives. It's working with Cisco Systems, Nokia, and T-Mobile to set up dual-band Wi-Fi and cellular service that will let students make free phone calls on campus. The university also is home to Cisco's IPICS communication center, linking emergency responders in Rhode Island and Connecticut; is moving toward providing students with unified communications and IPTV; and is in talks with an accounting software company to host apps in the Bryant data center to bring in extra cash.

Efficiency Takeaway
>> Energy sources are everywhere, from ambient cooling via external air to solar panels. Payback on such projects may be only a few years.
>> Locating data centers near power sources or substations can mean a sweet deal from utility providers. Everything at Equinix has been thought through for security.
"Before we did this data center, it was the thing that kept me up at night. ... Now, we have more time to be innovative," says Rich Siedzik, director of computer and telecommunications services at Bryant. The university needed to move from an operational focus to a strategic one, and "the data center allowed us to do that," Siedzik says. With all those projects, Bryant is now considered one of the most wired campuses in the country.

Not that VP of IT Gloster is satisfied. He says Bryant can go much further to save energy; it recently had a call with IBM to discuss how the university could cut its power costs by another 50%.

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