Texas Data Centers Finding New Ways To Stay Cool | KERA News

Texas Data Centers Finding New Ways To Stay Cool

Apr 13, 2016

In the U.S., we guzzle down data – on our phones and computers – and generally don’t think much about where all that content is stored. It’s stored in places called data centers, and they’re a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the 21st century. The problem: Many of them are stuck in the past. A few companies building data centers in Texas though are trying to boost energy efficiency.

If Memory Lane were a real place, it might be a long aisle in a dimly-lit data center. At least for those of us who keep photos online.

“When Facebook came out years ago, you loaded pictures and put them in an album that today you still want to be able to access,” says Ali Greenwood, with Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate firm in Dallas. “Do you ever look at them? Very rarely, right! But you would be devastated if you couldn’t click on it and pull up a photo album of your wedding from seven years ago.”

Greenwood, who’s vice president of JLL’s Data Center Solutions Group, says that all of that digital data — things like selfies and birthday messages — have all been living inside data centers. Far from being the quiet, clean “cloud” we hear about, these places are often old-school — noisy, cold warehouses with roaring, outdated cooling systems.

Estimates on how much power data centers waste vary, but Pierre Delforge with the Natural Resources Defense Council says we know they’re using much more power than necessary.

Jack Edwards (right) and Tom Doherty with Aligned Energy at the newest data center in Plano. They say it is the first “pay-for-only-the-power-that-you-use” data center in the U.S.
Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News

“We know they use about 90 billion kilowatt hours of power a year,” Delforge says, “That’s equivalent to the output of more than 30 large coal-fired power plants.”

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to make federal data centers use energy more efficiently – it could save taxpayers $5 billion over seven years, according to a report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Delforge says there are a few big opportunities for energy savings at data centers:

  1. Get rid of “zombie” servers and improve server utilization: Average server utilization is still very low, somewhere around 10 to 20 percent, Delforge says. “This is akin to running a fleet of airplanes with only 10 percent of seats filled. Consolidating under-utilized servers, powering down unused spare capacity servers, and decommissioning zombie servers is probably the largest energy saving opportunity in data centers.”
  2. Moving small and medium data centers to the cloud: Large-scale, cloud data centers are much more optimized from an energy perspective than small and medium server rooms in office buildings.
  3. Improving cooling efficiency: Cooling is fundamental to a data center’s success. But keeping all that equipment chilled is a big energy investment.

That’s why the newest data center in Plano is trying a different approach to keeping data cool.

Creative Cooling

During a recent tour, Jack Edwards and Tom Doherty  showed off Aligned Energy’s Data Center in Plano.

The massive campus will soon be filled with rows and rows of servers. Instead of using expensive fan energy to blow cold air around, they’re using an idea borrowed from the iPhone. It’s called heat removal.

Aligned Energy developed a cooling system called “conductive cooling.” In this process, a heat sink removes heat directly at the rack or aisle, drawing hot air from servers and passing it across coils chilled by refrigerant. Cool air comes out the other side.
Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News

“The idea is, if we can efficiently remove heat from the data center, you could substantially improve the efficiency,” says Doherty, chief operating officer of Aligned Data Centers.

Like smartphones use an aluminum body to radiate away wasted heat,  at this data center, heat-sinks directly above the servers draw away hot air and pass it across coils chilled by refrigerant.

Aligned’s software monitors clients’ energy needs and adjusts cooling. Doherty says while a traditional data center consumes about 51 million gallons of water per year – that’s enough to fill 77 Olympic-sized swimming pools – the Plano data center will use 85 percent less water.

Ali Greenwood says in the race to trim power usage, companies in Texas are testing out all kinds of cooling ideas. From evaporative cooling to chimney ducts that push heat server exhaust into the ceiling, to dunking servers in a cooling fluid like mineral oil.

On top of using new cooling techniques, international companies are feeling pressure to use renewable sources of energy, like wind or solar.

Renewable Energy Enters The Equation 

Bill Weihl is Facebook’s director of sustainability — he’s also known as the sustainability guru. He says the $1 billion data center being built in Fort Worth will run on 100 percent wind energy. Easy access to wind is one of the reasons Texas was selected as the fifth site for a data center, Weihl says.

For now, it’s mostly Fortune 500 companies, like Amazon and Apple, making commitments to fully power their data centers with renewable energy.

Still, Weihl thinks the idea is spreading.

An aerial shot showing construction of Facebook’s Data Center in Fort Worth. The facility will be powered by wind energy generated in West Texas.
Credit Facebook

“It wouldn’t surprise me if in Texas, many other data center companies in the next couple of years started to do that as well,” he says.

Right now in Texas, it’s cheaper to get power from traditional sources, so smaller data centers will probably focus on energy efficiency before switching to renewables.

That means when you are on your phone, digging for data — things like old pictures or notes – there will still be some pollution on your trip down memory lane.