Energy use in data centers accounts for 2% of electricity consumption in the United States and 1.2% worldwide, according to a new report by Stanford University professor Jonathan Koomey. While that’s a relatively small slice of overall energy usage, it’s a lot of megawatts. So the pressure is on to come up with ways to make data centers less energy hungry.
A couple of IBM scientists think they’ve found a smart way to do that. Kota Murali and Roger Schmidt are the brains behind the Holistic Green Data Center–an integrated package of technologies designed to bring solar energy to data centers, avoid energy-sapping DC-to-AC power conversions and use water for cooling by running it directly under the microprocessors in server computers.
Each of the pieces by itself could create significant energy savings. Taken together, they offer the potential of transforming the way data centers are designed in sunny locations and greatly expanding the availability and lowering the cost of computing in developing countries in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.
The seed of the idea was planted nearly two years ago when Schmidt, an IBM Fellow and the company’s chief engineer for data center energy efficiency, gave a lecture about water-cooled computer systems in Bangalore, India, where IBM has a large workforce. In the audience was Murali, the lead scientist for nanotechnology in IBM India. Murali made the connections: India has abundant solar energy. Solar energy produces direct current, which was is required to run computers. And a new generation of computers was on the way that would be cooled super-effectively by water–greatly reducing the need for traditional air conditioning. He approached Schmidt after his lecture and they began a collaboration that by the end of the this year is expected to result in a small IBM data center in Bangalore running the solar-and-water system as a test bed. “This creates a highly efficient system,” says Murali.
The potential savings are impressive. By avoiding conversion from AC to DC, they figure they’ll shave 10% off of energy consumption. In Bangalore, where the sun shines an average of 330 days per year, they expect to save 20% in energy costs by using solar as the primary energy source rather than relying on an electricity grid.
There’s another benefit that’s not obvious to people in mature economies. In many emerging markets, electrical grids are undependable or non-existent. Companies are forced to rely way too much on expensive diesel generators. That makes it difficult and expensive to deploy a lot of computers, especially in the concentrated way they’re used in data centers. But, with this holistic approach, a bank, a telecommunications company or a government agency could contemplate setting up a data center that doesn’t need the grid.
For Kota, who grew up in India but got his PhD at MIT in the United States, this approach to running data centers has an immense appeal. “As a scientist, it’s satisfying because you’re reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions,” he says. “As somebody who’s interested in social impact, it will be great to see these systems transform the lives of people who don’t have much electrical power and computing power. It can change life.”
If this experiment works as planned, IBM plans on offering the technology to clients.