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 April 8, 2011

When data centers go green, energy can be saved

FORT COLLINS – Inside Building 6 of Hewlett-Packard’s south Fort Collins complex, the space known as “The Sandbox” is starkly devoid of sand. Actually, the nearly 2,700-square-foot area is neatly lined with sterile rows and cabinets of computing equipment, which serve as the lab within the lab where HP will test and showcase its next generation of sustainable data centers.

The company opened its new 50,000-square-foot research facility in late March, bringing in scientists and engineers from its offices around the country to talk about the prospects for greener data centers. HP’s researchers want to significantly reduce the amount of power needed to operate and cool the large banks of computers and servers maintained by companies for information technology and other computing storage needs while increasing their capacity with minimal equipment.

The end goal is a data center that consumes zero net energy; an impressive ambition considering huge data enters can need roughly the same amount of power as a small city. HP’s working data center/research laboratory could help develop solutions that would be implemented in a new class of mega-data-centers primed to open in the region.

Data centers humming

Inside HP’s new research facility, the constant buzz of thousands of servers at work is a sign of the massive amount of energy needed to keep a data center humming, audibly and operationally. At full build-out, the research space will function as a moderately sized data center; it will run on 10 megawatts of power and have its own infrastructure of cooling towers and pumps. While most data centers are frigid environments, with expansive air-conditioning working to prevent computers from overheating, a tour of HP’s sustainable data center doesn’t even require a coat.

Duncan Campbell, HP’s vice president of converged infrastructure, said Fort Collins’ “banana belt” climate was among the reasons the company chose to site its new research facility here. The cool air and low humidity amount to “supply-side benefits” when running a data center and testing ways to optimize efficiency. Technology known as cooling micro-grids will help economize water and air use. During winter months, the facility will draw in the cold Colorado air to handle most of its cooling needs.

The research grounds also rely on 10,000 sensors and automated vent tiles in the floor to monitor and optimize energy use. While most data centers run with lots of built-in redundancies with a large number of servers running inefficiently at low use rates, wasting power, cooling and space – because who wants to risk losing an entire company’s telecommunications system or its library of stored computing files? – HP engineers believe a sustainable data center can eliminate such IT sprawl.

The area known as The Sandbox – homage to founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who used the term to describe labs where scientists could freely tinker with technologies – is equipped with a higher density of equipment and an additional layer of tech capabilities to push the bounds of efficiency and sustainability. Some of the automation and instrumentation technologies being used by HP could also be applied to other areas, including smart-grid operations of electrical power grids.

Over the next year, HP officials will scale out the technologies to see how they function within a fully operating data center. The facility will eventually provide some new research jobs, according to Campbell, but the company isn’t yet announcing any positions.

Region attracts others

Other companies and developers have also taken advantage of the region’s climate and connectivity to build out data centers and implement green technologies, although not to the extent of HP.

In late March, Weld County approved the development of the Niobrara Energy Park, which would cover 640 acres and includes plans for a mega data center integrated among other industries focused on energy research and generation of natural gas, solar and wind resources. Such large-scale data centers can consume 75 megawatts of energy, but they also generate hundreds of high-paying jobs. In announcing the progress for the site, developer Craig Harrison said, “With the redundant alternative and clean fossil electricity, along with the connection to the adjoining national fiber highway, this is the ideal site for a mega-data center of national importance.”

Wyoming has also recently attracted interest from Verizon to build a mega-data center in Laramie, and another unnamed Fortune 500 company is talking with Cheyenne officials about building a major data center that could bring in an initial capital investment of about $750 million.

In terms of sustainability, Green House Data of Cheyenne operates a 10,000 square-foot “carbon-neutral” data center that runs on wind energy and has invested in energy-efficient technology. According to the company’s website, the data center is 40 percent more energy efficient than similarly sized facilities.

For now, HP will test the use of onsite renewable energy for data centers at its Palo Alto, Calif., campus, and focus on cooling technologies at Fort Collins. Chandrakant Patel, director of HP’s sustainable ecosystems research group, said the company will eventually bring the components together to create “the ultimate data center” that consumes zero net energy and even stores and produces excess power. Patel estimates the goal is five to 10 years away.

Joshua Zaffos is a freelance journalist based in Northern Colorado who covers environmental issues for the Business Report quarterly. Contact him at news@ncbr.com.

FORT COLLINS – Inside Building 6 of Hewlett-Packard’s south Fort Collins complex, the space known as “The Sandbox” is starkly devoid of sand. Actually, the nearly 2,700-square-foot area is neatly lined with sterile rows and cabinets of computing equipment, which serve as the lab within the lab where HP will test and showcase its next generation of sustainable data centers.

The company opened its new 50,000-square-foot research facility in late March, bringing in scientists and engineers from its offices around the country to talk about the prospects for greener data centers. HP’s researchers want to significantly reduce…

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