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Feng Shui and the art of data centers

Microsoft will cool its new Irish data center with outside air. Why not? There's a lot of it, and it's free.

Large multinational companies are building data centers designed to flow with their environment. There's something you probably didn't expect to hear five years ago.

Microsoft, for instance, is building a data center in Ireland in which the server rooms and other facilities will be cooled with devices called air side economizers, which pipe outside air inside.

"It uses fresh air aggressively to keep your building cool," said Rob Bernard, Microsoft's chief environmental strategist, in a phone interview. "The ideal scenario is that if Ireland continues to develop wind power and hopefully wave power, you have the best of both worlds: you're minimizing kilowatt consumption, and the kilowatts you use are sustainable."

The company, he pointed out, also has a data center in Quincy, Wash., powered by hydroelectric dams. (We've got an earlier post with Bernard about Microsoft's plans to move into building automation and other green industries.)

Similarly, Google analyzes the availability of renewable power when it builds data centers. Centers built in Oregon and North Carolina are located near hydroelectric power. Google also has 1.6 megawatts' worth of solar power at its headquarters. Applied Materials, the Air Force, and Sharp own even larger solar arrays.

And then there is Southern California's Greenest Host, which has a solar-powered data center. It provides Web hosting services.

The concern about balancing a data center with the environment, of course, comes back to rising energy prices (and almost nothing to do with creating a nurturing, life-giving atmosphere for our wonderful IT support staff). Electricity costs have skyrocketed in the past few years, and carbon cap-and-trade systems that will require companies to pay fees for the luxury of emitting greenhouse gases are inevitable.

Data centers consume only around 1.5 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S., but the total still comes to quite a bit. The Department of Energy estimates that data centers gobbled up 61 billion kilowatt-hours in 2006 and the figure could rise to 100 billion kilowatt-hours by 2011. Data centers consumed as much power as all of the color TVs in the U.S. in 2006: that same amount of electricity could have powered 5.8 million homes.

Server rooms aren't particularly efficient either. Half of the power is consumed to run the air conditioning and cooling systems, which get rid of waste heat generated by the computers, switches, and storage systems. Thus, you can argue that more than half of the energy doesn't really go toward a productive use. More efficient power supplies, other components, and liquid cooling systems are expected to make a dent in this.

Virtualization, which allows applications to run simultaneously on the same server, will also throttle power consumption by increasing the amount of time the processor and hard drive actually perform work. Right now, these components burn significant amounts of energy sitting in idle.

From a practical point of view, data centers are both easy and tough to make green. On one hand, since only a few people work in them, you can put them almost anywhere.

On the other hand, you have to connect the servers to a high-speed connection. Iceland has a lot of geothermal power, but it doesn't have the same broadband infrastructure that a lot of other European nations do. Ireland's no broadband powerhouse either.