Energy-efficient data centers: Tap local, sustainable resources

A microgrid approach using local power sources can help providers build out more self-sustaining, energy-efficient data centers.

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With self-sustaining, energy-efficient data centers that take advantage of local and renewable power sources, cloud providers can reduce their notoriously large carbon footprint and the risk of outages for end users.

The hype around "going green" has trickled into the IT industry, prompting many cloud and service providers, as well as large enterprises, to rethink their data center operations. While building out self-sustaining, highly energy-efficient data centers won't be an option for everyone, providers should consider taking advantage of local resources and adopting a microgrid strategy to powering their data centers by using local power sources to ensure reliability and substantiality capacity for increased power requirements.

"Right now, we are only seeing the large players invest in renewable energy or microgrid approaches around their data centers, but it's starting to become a trend for [providers] to start to differentiate by working towards the creation of their own self-sustaining facilities," said Sophia Vargas, researcher of infrastructure and operations for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Energy-efficient data centers: Employ a microgrid strategy

A data center's geographic location will determine whether it can adopt a microgrid approach, said Douglas Alger, Cisco press author and IT architect. "Providers, as well as enterprises, are taking a look at what type of power mix or combination would be feeding their data center, based on where it's going to be built. They also want to know if there will be advantages to having their power generated on-site or locally."

The Niobrara Data Center Energy Park in Northern Colorado, which was recently cleared for construction, will be a self-contained data center powered by a self-generated energy production facility built and run by Niobrara NatGas LLC. The Niobrara data centers will also connect to the local power grid for redundancy.  The data center project -- now up for sale for any large provider or enterprise -- is slated to be the first hybrid natural gas and renewable energy data center park, said Craig Harrison, president and founder of the Niobrara Energy Park.

Most modern data centers draw on a local electrical grid for primary power and rely on diesel generators for backup power. A microgrid approach allows providers to take advantage of local, renewable and cheaper resources that afford the security of a more consistent, closer primary power source.

More on energy-efficient data centers:

Going green: Creating an energy-efficient data center

Upgrading to energy-efficient servers

Green data centers: Energy-efficient computing in the 21st century  

"Most data centers receive their energy from a nearby substation, which receives its power from transmission of anywhere between five and 500 miles away -- there's a lot that can go wrong between point A to B," Harrison said. A microgrid strategy that combines local resources and electricity can help providers skate around these common points of failure by placing power transmission closer to the data center, which can help reduce loss along the way. The "off-the-main-grid" approach is also less likely to become affected in the event of the main grid experiencing an outage, he said. 

"Reliability is the core of a cloud provider's product," Forrester's Vargas said. "Because provider's data centers are dependent on energy, they should commit to sustainability." 

The Niobrara data center will be minimally impactful on the environment.  While the facility will use self-generated natural gas as its main power source, it will also take advantage of wind turbines, solar power, and a local electrical grid located off the main grid for redundant power. The facility will cool itself using 94% free outdoor air and a private, underground water supply.

The data center park is also located next to long-haul fiber lines for connectivity from over 20 different service providers, including AT&T, Level 3 and Century Link.    

Are self-sustaining, green data center strategies appropriate for every provider?

The best strategy for any data center will depend upon the services it provides and the end users being serviced, Cisco's Alger said. While a microgrid approach that leverages local resources will be a viable option for some providers, it may not be the best bet for every provider, in every location.

Large providers with data centers in remote areas may earn a return on investment from microgrids, but smaller providers will lack the scale and the resources to earn the same returns  from a microgrid, said Farah Saeed, principal consultant of energy and power systems for San Antonio-based Frost and Sullivan Inc.

Despite their environmental benefits, self-sustaining data centers can suffer from latency problems, as many true, self-sustaining data centers are located in remote areas. However, unless a provider has customers that rely on high-performance applications -- such as finance customers on the stock exchange -- its data center location and sustainability approach won't affect customers, Forrester's Vargas said. 

The risk of latency shouldn't affect a provider's commitment to self-sustainability. "Even if [providers] choose to build their data center in a remote area due to the climate or environmental benefits, there could still be good connectivity and service provider availability in that area," Alger said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter. 

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