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US researchers begin solar-powered datacentre research project

Massachusetts-based project aims to uncover how best to integrate datacentres and smart grids

A US-based research team has created an experimental solar-powered micro datacentre, as pressure grows on the IT industry to find a more sustainable source of energy for server farms.

The 200ft2 facility – dubbed MassNZ – has been created to give researchers an understanding of how renewable energy sources can be used to reduce datacentres’ reliance on fossil fuels.

The project is being overseen by the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC), with the assistance of the organisation’s partner universities and local utility provider, Holyoke Gas and Electric.

MassNZ is located next to the 15MW MGHPCC datacentre, and will draw on the energy produced by a nearby fleet of solar panels to power its server, storage and networking kit. It also contains a mix of batteries and micro flywheels that can be used to store any surplus energy for later use.

In a statement, MGHPCC said the power, cooling and workload data generated by the site will be used by its research team to work out the most efficient way to integrate datacentres with smart electricity grids, so they can carry out high-performance computing and machine-learning tasks.

Kumble Subbaswamy of MGHPCC partner the University of Massachusetts Amherst said the project could have enormous implications for the IT industry.

“Datacentres play an indispensable role in our increasingly connected world, but they are voracious users of energy,” he said.

“MassNZ is a hands-on research and educational resource that will help us understand how to decrease a datacentre’s energy footprint and increase its use of renewable energy in an era when we are striving to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Read more about datacentre sustainability and efficiency

The energy consumption of the datacentre sector is coming under increasing scrutiny by environmentalists and regulators, prompting speculation that legislation could soon be pushed through to curb the sector’s carbon emissions and drive up the amount of renewable power it uses.

One of the aims of the MassNZ project is to uncover the best way for the sector to achieve this from an infrastructure, design and construction point of view.

Christopher Hill, principal research engineer and director of research computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said previous attempts to address this issue have been beset by problems.

“There are three major obstacles to research in sustainable datacentre design – availability of experimental infrastructure to enable realistic prototyping and evaluation, availability of realistic use cases from a state-of-the-art green datacentre, and real-time visibility into the utility infrastructure that provides datacentre power,” said Hill. “The MassNZ addresses all three.”

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT