Eaton-backed consortium seeks new ways to green the datacentre

The datacentre industry just loves guzzling high energy fossil fuels and it’s got a huge bottom line. But a consortium led by Eaton aims to cut consumption and make it more mobile. Nick Booth reports

Have you ever blown a sale that you thought was in the bag?

We’ve all done it. Then afterwards we’re forced to hold a painfully honest inquest with ourselves to try to identify the fatal faux pas.

Did somebody follow up on those ‘research’ figures you invented for your presentation? Maybe someone spotted your Ferrari in the car park and decided you had too much flash and not enough memory. Or maybe somebody in Legal actually ploughed through the carefully-placed traps in the Ts&Cs.

The sales team at Iceotope must have been counting their bonuses recently when global banking giant Credit Suisse took their datacentre cooling invention on trial for a month. This is a company with 13 data halls housing 4,800 servers. Iceotope’s pitch is that it can save any companies millions on air conditioning costs by immersing their servers in liquid, so since the global cost of air conditioning in datacenters is close to $5bn there was a convincing case for placing a monster order.

Marcel Lederberger, the bank’s head of datacentre facilities, said he was well impressed with the performance of the Rotherham-based start-up’s cooling invention. But there was a problem. For corporate compliance reasons Credit Suisse needed to buy a big name brand for its corporate data, otherwise the legal department and the head of compliance would spent the rest of their careers sweating buckets and looking over their shoulders. But since Iceotope has to supply its own non-branded blades, at the end of the trial, Mr Lederberger politely asked them to take all their kit away. Ouch. That’s the sort of depressing news that would make a bishop kick in a plate glass window. 

And that’s the problem with the datacentre industry. It’s too complicated – but it’s not the millions of moving parts that are the problem. It’s static elements that are causing grief.

Take the power market. We all want to use green energy, but it’s created in rural areas, mountains or at sea and the consumers of that power are mostly in urban areas.

Much of the output of wind turbines is created at night, but the majority of demand for power is in daytime. Meanwhile, there is no capacity to store energy or even distribute it properly, because the national grid is dumber than an Amstrad 286. So there are obvious challenges there for any energetic solutions providers.

The datacentre industry, however, seems to be the only sector in technology where everyone seems to be getting older. But that might not be a bad thing.

Young upstarts like Iceotope could learn a thing from the more mature companies, like power management company stalwart Eaton. Though over 100 years old, Eaton is a company that has retained all its faculties and, in a commercial sense, still has its own hair and teeth. And it seems to be showing the young disruptive companies some impressive moves.

Recently Eaton announced a new research project to invent new ways to make the datacentre industry more efficient. After presenting its ideas to the EC, it was awarded a €2.9m grant to lead a consortium of vendors, end users and academia to pool their collective brains and create a sort of fitness programme for the IT industry. The target for the collective – known as GreenDataNet – is to cut down on consumption and boost energy levels.

Fabrice Roudet, Eaton’s innovation and competencies manager, was the driving force behind this initiative and put together a team of people to discuss how to put the world to rights. The people he likes having a beer with all share his passion to stop the datacentre industry from devouring all our precious fossils fuels.

Roudet has created an impressive team of scientists and researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne (EPFL), the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and Italy’s University of Trento. They’re working on all kinds of server cooling techniques that cool each CPU instantly and save the need to cool an entire room. This should make the air conditioning industry very nervous.

Meanwhile, hard-nosed, commercial logic is provided by a Dutch datacentre builder, ICT Room and the aforementioned Credit Suisse datacentre boss Marcel Lederberger. In the three years that the alliance has got to come up with an initiative, any airy-fairy academic nonsense will be kicked into the long grass by the no-nonsense Mr Lederberger. So hopefully the EPFL’s CPU cooling system will work with any brand of blade.

One major objective of the project is to cut the average datacentre PUE (Power Use Efficiency) ratio from today’s wooly estimate of 1.8 to an impressive sounding wooly estimate of 1.3 in future. That should be easy enough: simply redefine the figures like everybody else does. Tick!

But another major objective could be far more widespread benefits. They want to create a power distribution grid that would help urban data centers to source 80% of their power from renewable sources like wind, hydro and solar power, which means creating a much more efficient way of distributing power from offshore to inside the M25. That’s a serious challenge.

“Power is generated in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” says Cyrille Brisson, VP for power quality at Eaton’s EMEA division, “and it’s on the wrong systems.”

One of the possible solutions to this is using power storage, which is why Nissan has been roped into the consortium. The batteries in Nissan’s new range of electric cars are capable of providing 24 Kilowatt hours each. If you had enough of them in your car park, and could connect them all up, your company car pool might have enough power to run a backup power supply for a small datacentre.

This is one of the many hypotheticals that GreenDataNet aims to explore in the next 36 months. The priorities will be to create better systems for energy monitoring and management. EPFL’s EcoCloud will be working on the tighter integration of software and hardware platforms with the infrastructure to optimise energy use in the datacentre.

Who knows what impressive technology will emerge in 36 months’ time. If GreenDataNet can inject some movement into the seemingly static datacentre industry, that would be very impressive indeed.

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