EU project aims to boost urban datacentre efficiency

GreenDataNet consortium will develop smart, open-source technologies to stop smart cities grinding to a halt amid rocketing energy demands

The European Union (EU) has awarded €2.9 million (£2.4 million) to a consortium of companies and researchers that will work to improve the energy efficiency of urban datacentres.

GreenDataNet is a three-year project designed to develop smart, open-source technologies to facilitate the dramatic gains in power efficiency that will be needed if European cities are to handle the vast increase in datacentre demand implied by developments such as the Internet of Things and smart cities.

The consortium is led by power management company Eaton, and includes EPFL (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne), France's atomic energy commission (CEA), Nissan, Credit Suisse and the University of Trento (UNITN), among others.

Unlike the Facebook-led Open Compute Project, which is primarily about developing efficient open-source technologies for large-scale datacentres, GreenDataNet will specifically address the challenges faced by the smaller datacentres common in European cities, where space and power are increasingly at a premium.

Cyrille Brisson (pictured), Eaton’s vice-president for power quality, said: “While the Open Compute Project is a great initiative, it doesn’t really address the specific energy concerns of most European cities, where datacentres tend to be smaller due to planning constraints and availability of space.”

No single company or university today has sufficient knowledge to solve all the challenges ahead

Cyrille Brisson, Eaton

Datacentres are responsible for about 2.5% of Europe's energy use, and this figure is rising by 10-15% every year. Over the next five years, analysts believe their level of consumption is likely to double. According to Forrester Research, a datacentre with 1,000 servers will use, in a single month, about the same amount of electricity it takes to power 16,800 homes for an entire year.

GreenDataNet's goal is to optimise IT, power, cooling and storage at three levels: servers and racks, individual datacentres and networks of datacentres. Project leaders aim to reduce datacentres’ PUE (power usage effectiveness) figures from the current norm of 1.6-2.0 to an average of less than 1.3, as well as boosting their use of renewable energy to about 80%.

Testing and proof of concept will take place at three datacentres: one operated by Credit Suisse in Switzerland, one at the CEA and a third in the Netherlands operated by a Dutch green IT consortium.  

Brisson said: “The project is a network of initiatives that are all contributing and building on top of one another. That’s important because no single company or university today has sufficient knowledge to solve all the challenges ahead.”

Urban datacentres are a power hog. For utilities, that's going to be an increasing headache

Cyrille Brisson, Eaton

Among the project’s most significant ambitions is the development of power storage units that will allow datacentres to avoid putting unsustainable pressure on the electricity grid at times of peak usage, possibly based on arrays of second-life lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles.

“The datacentre today is a power hog, especially in cities," said Brisson. "For utilities, that’s going to be an increasing headache. So GreenDataNet will develop a smart energy buffer that will store renewable energy, as well as power drawn from the grid at times of lower demand, in order to reduce the pressure at peak times.”

GreenDataNet also aims to make energy monitoring, power demand forecasting and load profiling tools widely available. “The project is open source and we are going to publicise all the results through standardisation bodies, the EU and other outlets," said Brisson. "We will also provide a number of APIs for people to build their own solutions on top of the platforms.”

Ultimately, project leaders hope the tools they are developing will enable urban datacentres to store energy harvested from their own, or nearby, renewable sources, such as solar arrays and wind turbines, as well as distributing this energy and any waste heat they produce to local businesses and homes via a 'green grid'.

Brisson also hopes GreenDataNet will begin to have an impact on European datacentres before the project’s three years are up. “In a number of areas, we hope to be doing a proof of concept reasonably quickly,” he said.

“It is very possible that, by next year, we will have some live demos in actual datacentres. We don’t want the entire project to wait three years to be implemented and if we have opportunities to deploy pilot projects faster, we’ll certainly try to do that.”

But Brisson is under no illusions that it will be plain sailing. "I believe we will solve the problem of ensuring datacentres are not hit by increasing energy instability, but ensuring they can keep up with the hugely growing demand for IT services is going to be a very big challenge indeed," he said.

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