Using Renewable Energy in the Data Center

You know eco-friendly IT efforts can save budget dollars, but unless you've investigated solar, wind and other renewable energy options you may be leaving money on the table.

By John Soat
Tue, August 09, 2011

CIO

Earlier this year, social networking giant Facebook finished construction of its newest data center in Pineville, Oregon. In a press release, Facebook officials touted the new facility as "setting new standards for environmental responsibility in data center design and operations." Those standards incorporate renewable energy tactics such as rainwater reclamation, solar energy, and heat recycling.

By now, the energy-saving advantages of environmentally friendly efforts in IT are clear - even if companies don't always practice them. Even rather token efforts that make grossly inefficient data centers slightly less so can result in significant cost savings, given the escalating cost of electricity.

But it's clear that energy efficiency will become only more important in the years ahead. That's especially true for data centers, as the demand for IT horsepower increases. So what are the best next steps in efficient data center operation? And is there a place for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind in the current data center equation?

Measuring efficiency

The common metric used in measuring the energy efficiency of a data center is a simple one: PUE (power usage efficiency) = total facility power/IT equipment power. The desired PUE number is 1.0 - a one-to-one ratio between the energy being used to power the IT equipment and the total energy being expended in the data center facility. Unfortunately, most data centers operate at a PUE of about 2.0 at best, according to industry sources.

That's why vendors tout the PUE of their green compute technology. For instance, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) claims its POD (performance-optimized data center) systems, which are self-contained high-end computing units, operate at a PUE as low as 1.05. That energy efficiency mainly comes from the systems' use of "innovative cooling techniques," says Jon Mormile, HP product marketing manager for POD. Keeping hot-running computer servers cool while they chug away is a major factor in the PUE discrepancy.

For its part, Facebook claims a PUE of 1.07 for the data center design it employed in its Pineville facility, a design it has made public in support of its "Open Compute Project." Unlike its Web 2.0 rival Google (GOOG), which keeps its data center designs highly proprietary, Facebook launched its "open source" data center effort "to share our designs and collaborate with anyone interested in highly efficient server and data center designs," said Jonathan Heiliger, VP of technical operations at Facebook, in a statement.

Nonetheless, that impressive efficiency number does not include the energy Facebook is generating with it solar-panel array. That energy will be used to provide electricity to the office areas that support the data center, according to Facebook.

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