Datacentres have gone power crazy

Nick Booth looks at some of the key players in the datacentre energy-saving game

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: December 2013

If there is one technology area where the British might possibly have a lead over the Americans, it is in saving power. Mind you, they never let us have a lead for long. That’s why their IT industry is so much more powerful than ours - they adapt so much quicker.

So for now, savour this moment in history: there is probably more expertise in the UK on how to save energy in datacentres and it might be a good time to seize the moment and exploit the market opportunity.

But let’s have a cup of tea first, while we consider our options. There’s a whole range of UK start-ups who have invented new ways to save energy in the fossil fuel guzzling, carbon belching datacentre sector.

In the US, $7.4bn is spent on cooling datacentres annually. UK vendors like Iceotope aim to cut these costs by integrating the processors and the cooling systems more efficiently. It does this by providing massive processing power, memory and storage in an integrated computing system cooled with liquid, which saves energy and lowers costs. 

For example, environmental cooling specialist Iceotope has installed its liquid-cooled servers in Poland’s Poznan supercomputing and networking centre (PSNC).

At 3,200 square feet, the PSNC co-location centre offers high performance computing (HPC) services to scientists, universities and researchers from around the world, and it eats up power. Luckily for Poland, power is relatively cheap given an abundance of coal but the European Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE) Research Project has been looking to cut its environmental footprint.

Iceotope’s new liquid cooling system is installed in 46 environmentally-friendly and high performance blade modules and is so good at cooling it makes it possible to overclock the machines. Overclocking the machine means you get more zing for your Zloty.

“We can overclock the machines and still use minimal power resources for cooling; no easy feat, I can assure you,” says Iceotope founder and CEO, Peter Hopton.

Typically, datacentre facilities will use only around 40% of their server’s capacity. At Poznan PSNC, the Iceotope system was set up to run at above 90%. It runs a demanding Linux Stress software programme which strains every sinew of memory, CPU, servers and applications, says Hopton.

“Users can run their systems in turbo mode and get higher performance rates,” he says.

Iceotope is one of a crop of UK start-ups taking their energy-saving inventions to the US in December, on a ‘Clean and Cool’ technology mission to Colorado, backed by UK Trade and Industry (UKTI).

But why stop at Colorado? Datacentres around the world are desperate to lower their carbon footprint, after all, and one good thing that we can thank Britain’s officious regulators for is that our service providers are more experienced at cutting emissions in datacentres and providing alternative energy supplies.

In his 2009 inaugural address President Obama set out his New Energy for America plan, calling for 25% of the US electricity supply to come from renewables by 2025. This is in turn creating demand for new grid-scale energy storage. A battery from Wind Power Performance promises to rise to this challenge by creating lower energy storage costs. Meanwhile, other energy options are emerging that UK inventors can exploit. Low-voltage DC power is becoming an increasingly popular option for datacentres as it’s cheap, safe and green. All it needs is for equipment to be redesigned for the new model. Big companies are already working on rejigging chips and logic to fit the new standard and the first USB PD devices will come to market in 2014, with a big roll-out in 2015, according to Brad Saunders of Intel.

This new USB standard will be a “game-changer”, says Saunders. Big datacentres, with their huge, humming arrays of servers, are already using DC circuits. Homes and offices will follow, he says.

But the options don’t stop there. UK firm Arcola Energy makes fuel cells that convert chemical energy from a fuel (like hydrogen) into electricity. Ultimately this makes electricity more accessible and cost-effective for consumers and businesses. Arcola’s technology can be used in the home and within the construction, entertainment, education and automotive industries.

Another fuel cell company is Enocell, which is targeting the growing market demand for both grid and off-grid energy supply. On the other hand, the Merismus micro-grid, from Each For All Productions, works with a smart meter to automatically manage grid and microgeneration energy usage. The end result is low energy bills through very little effort.

Meanwhile, the design of datacentre buildings is another area that could be made much greener. UK inventor Flint Engineering has created a building that absorbs energy from the sun in order to power the datacentre equipment inside.

Flint Engineering blends photovoltaic conversion and thermal collection to create a roofing and cladding material that absorbs the sun’s energy and heats your building. It’s a sort of heat sponge, which uses ammonia in vapour form to absorb energy from the sun. It could make your heating, cooling and hot water bills disappear too.

You know how some people prostrate themselves in front of the sun? Fullsun Photovoltaics is a bit like that. It wants every joule of energy from the sun’s 386 billion megawatts, aiming to capture it and convert it into electricity. It does this by using high concentrated photovoltaic (HCPV) technology in a lightweight solar module designed for utility and commercial/industrial rooftop markets.   

It’s not just the buildings, the efficiency of the IT infrastructure can also be improved. Magnets make any machine work better. Magnifye’s superconducting permanent magnets are 10 times stronger than their conventional cousins, and are both be small enough to fit into the palm of the hand and large enough to power a train or a cruise liner. With that sort of versatility they can get into a lot of places in the infrastructure and work their magic on servers and other units. This sounds a bit like those dodgy adverts you used to see in the Sunday papers – ‘revitalize your body with the healing power of magnets’, eh? We might need to keep an eye on this Magnifeye lot.

On a similar note, Moixa Technology aims to cut the peak load of demand on the national grid with a few insertions of its own. By putting millions of smart batteries into customer premises it says it can improve the energy efficiency of essential direct current (DC) devices such as lights and mobile phones.

We’ve already seen how direct current is going to make datacentres a lot cheaper to run, and storing energy at off-peak times Moixa’s technology cuts bills and improves energy security still further. But another, quite different, storage offering, comes from the PJH Partnership, which has created a solar power storage unit. Might be useful for those datacentres that have solar panels, or customers who want to store energy available at night and use it in the day - that’s if there ever comes a time when you get a cheaper rate for using power in off-peak times.

Renovagen has developed a transportable solar power system that can generate ten times more power than existing technologies. Designed for temporary or semi-permanent use in remote off-grid locations where self-sufficient power generation is essential. Meanwhile, Sunamp’s new high power heat batteries are super-compact but can store heat from conventional and non-conventional heat pumps and boilers. They can deliver heat quickly and with maximum energy efficiency as needed.

UK channel partners of these vendors will gain valuable experience in the early days of installation. That know-how will take them even further when the US adopts these technologies and customers start to look for trusted advisors with the rare expertise of installing these systems. There won’t be many of them about and the high demand will drive up the price they can command.

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