How To Build a Green Data Center
Published: May 3, 2007
by Alex Woodie
"Green" is not likely a word that comes to mind for those who have visited California's Inland Empire. During the summer, the area's desert-like climate roasts vegetation to a toasty brown, as daytime highs routinely hit 110 degrees. While water is a scarce resource here, one thing there is plenty of is sunshine. And with a data center powered by arrays of solar panels, not to mention a host of other environmentally friendly enhancements, Affordable Internet Services Online has earned the right to call itself green.
AISO.net, which hosts Web sites for thousands of organizations around the world, started going green in 2001, when it installed its first bank of solar panels. Currently, the company operates two arrays of solar panels on its one-acre site, for a total of 125 panels. The panels are connected to inverters and a bank of lead-acid batteries that store electricity. The panels put out enough power to operate the servers, switches, SANs, fans, and air conditioning unit during the day, with enough juice left over to charge the batteries and keep the data center powered at night.
According to Phil Nail, AISO.net's chief technology officer, the solar system, which cost about $100,000 to install, is very reliable. The company has never had to fire up its backup generator, which is powered with natural gas. There is a connection to the local power company, Southern California Edison, for emergencies. But so far it's only been used to sell power back to the grid, for which AISO.net gets credits.
But solar panels are just the start of AISO.net's greenness. The company, which is run by Nail, his wife, and their two kids in a semi-rural area of Riverside County, has taken a number of other steps to reduce its consumption of power and its impact on the environment.
When the company relocated from Wildomar to Romoland last year, it built a new data center, from the ground up, to be as environmentally friendly as possible. The company started with steel framing, which is longer-lasting than wood framing. To light the data center during the day, AISO.net uses a series of "solar tubes," similar to skylights, manufactured by a company called Solatube based in Vista, California. At night, the data center is lit with super-energy-efficient LEDs, which replaced compact fluorescent bulbs. (Compact fluorescents, in case you're wondering, are not as environmentally friendly as you might think, as they contain the toxic element mercury.)
When it came time to insulate the new 2,000 square-foot building from the Inland Empire's temperature extremes, AISO.net chose environmentally friendly cellulose (recycled paper) insulation, which provided an R-value equal to R 50. On the hottest days, the data center is kept a comfortable 68 degrees with a super-efficient air conditioning system from Freus, an outfit out of Texas that boosts efficiency by encapsulating the coolant in a second water-cooled jacket. At night and on mild days when the temperature is in the 50s or lower, AISO.net turns off the AC and uses fans that draw in the cool, dry outside air.
AISO.net is also in the process of installing a green roof, which is composed of hauling four or five inches of dirt up onto the roof and planting it with native vegetation. When the roof is complete, it will further insulate the building and hopefully cut the AC use by 50 percent. The new roof will also be used to recycle rainwater. Nail expects it to be complete by the end of the year.
Technology decisions have also had an impact on AISO.net's energy consumption. The ISP last year underwent an IT overhaul by Sirius Computer Solutions, an IBM reseller based in San Antonio, Texas. The work Sirius did to help lower AISO.net electricity usage was so successful that Sirius received an IBM Beacon Award this month in the "best IBM System x energy management solution" category. That award was directly the result of the AISO.net implementation, a Sirius spokesperson says
Here's how they did it: Before the Sirius overhaul, AISO.net ran 120 X86 servers, running a mix of Linux and Windows Server operating systems and Web applications. However, the utilization rate on these servers was an abysmal 4 to 8 percent. As a result, the servers were sucking up a lot juice just sitting there, not doing any work most of the time. Despite all the time and money that AISO put into designing and building the environmentally sensitive data center, the servers were ridiculously inefficient, which not jibe with AISO's green philosophy.
The solar panels provided AISO.net enough electricity-generating capacity to handle the servers and the AC units, but just barely. "We needed to expand, but we couldn't do it at the rate we were going," Nail says. "We would have had to invest in more panels, which means more ground outside has to be used."
Sirius' solution to this situation was to replace the 120 servers with four energy-efficient xSeries Model 346 servers running Intel Xeon processors. In addition to choosing more energy efficient servers, Sirius implemented virtualization technology from VMware to carve multiple virtual machines (VMs) out of the Model 346s to run the various workloads. On the back end, Sirius installed a NetApp storage area network (SAN) with 6 TB of storage, further virtualizing storage and driving up efficiency.
According to Sirius, the first phase of the project reduced AISO's power consumption by 60 percent. When the migration is complete (there are still 15 standalone servers that have yet to be migrated), Nail expects to see another 20 percent reduction in energy usage. That means, in the end, AISO's servers will use about 20 percent of the electricity they used before.
The VMware software has enabled AISO.net's server virtualization rates to go from the single digits to 70 percent or more. Currently, the company has five racks running in its 2,000 square-foot data center, plus the 15 physical servers that have not yet been migrated. Nail estimates he has room for 15 racks, providing plenty of headroom for growth.
Count Nail as a convert to the power of virtualization to help the environment. "Why run a physical machine with when you can virtualize it?" Nail asks. Virtualization has also boosted AISO.net's redundancy. "If one of the front-end machines physically died, VMware will just migrate it across one of the other machines and pull it up automatically," he says.
Nail says the green makeover (and the attention AISO.net has received from the press) has helped business. Some customers just like the idea of using renewable energy to power their Web sites. AISO.net is also the only data center operator that has been accepted to the U.S. Green Building Council. This gives AISO.net a competitive advantage over other Web site hosting companies that claim to be green because they buy credits that supposedly offset their environment impact. (They really don't offset the impacts, Nail says.)
Nail offers this advice to other data center owners who would like to follow in his green footsteps. "Just try to do everything you can to be green," he says. "It's not just the solar panels. It's really a combination of everything--the panels, using energy wisely, cooling your data center, and running the appropriate equipment."
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