As cloud computing, social networking, and online video and photo storage continue to grow, the data centers that house the massive amounts of hardware required to store all that information must expand as well. And with more hardware comes more need for energy to power it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the number of data centers will grow to a point where at least 10 new power plants will be needed by 2011 to supply their energy. In 2006, data centers used 61 billion kWh, about 1.5% of all energy consumed in the United States and enough to power 5.8 million homes, according to an EPA report sent to Congress. And data center energy consumption has only increased since then. This alarming trend has caused many conservationists in the tech world to seek out greener ways to power these multiplying mammoths.
Along with the noble intentions of going green, there are also great cost benefits for companies that invest in energy-efficient data centers. Powering a center can account for as much as 40% of a company’s IT budget. By investing in green data centers can save a lot of money in the long run.
At Georgia Tech University, professors continue work on what they call the Green IT Initiative. The members of the Green IT team have secured a data center that allows them to conduct simulations for new, efficient ways to cool facilities and program servers to manage their own power.
Karsten Schwan, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech and one of the leaders in the university’s Green IT effort, said many prominent technology companies including HP, IBM, and Intel have provided funding for the research. The companies hope to find ways to reduce their IT costs while also minimizing their carbon footprint.
“Some companies looked at projections and found their power costs will soon exceed their equipment costs,” Schwan said.
The research also could make data centers more energy efficient in areas that don’t have access to a robust power grid. Schwan pointed out the example of Nationwide Insurance, whose data centers are located near Columbus, Ohio, and are almost at capacity for the amount of power they can use.
“Sometimes there’s a different motivation,” Schwan said. “It’s not just about reducing costs, but being able to operate in certain power envelopes.”
Other innovators are finding new ways to use the excess heat from data centers to save on energy usage in nearby buildings. In Finland, Academica, a technology services firm, plans to open its new data center beneath the Upenski Cathedral and use the heat emitted by its servers to warm the building. The setup allows the excess heat to warm water that is then pumped through a system of pipes throughout the cathedral.
IBM is developing similar technology that it says could eventually be used to heat about 700 homes with the excess energy from one data center. The system uses water to cool the servers and then transfers the heated liquid to nearby homes. IBM is currently testing this strategy in Zurich, with the ultimate goal of creating a data center that has a zero-carbon footprint.
In another energy-conscious move, IBM recently entered into a joint venture with Syracuse University and New York State to create what the company says will be one of the greenest data centers on the planet. The 6000-square-foot facility, which is slated to become fully operational in January, will provide most of the computing power for the university and will use natural gas to power microturbines that simultaneously cool and power the facility. The strategy is expected to use 50% less energy than most data centers, IBM says.
The time, effort, and capital being invested into developing green data centers should prove to be a wise move by the companies and researchers involved. It will save money, reduce power consumption, and find new ways to manage a strained power grid.
“All these motivations are really coming together,” Schwan said. “It’s not just about saving money, but using the power to run other systems and save energy. It really can be win-win.”
Georgia Tech Green Initiative