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Originally published May 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 11, 2009 at 12:23 AM

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As data centers suck up energy, money, tech industry looks to turn down the heat

Spanning 10 football fields, filled with tens of thousands of servers, data centers are the information mills that churn out the goods and services of the digital world. These centers, which can cost upward of $100 million to build, also suck massive amounts of energy. Reducing energy costs has made building a greener data center the environmental grail of the tech industry.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Green data by the numbers

3%: Percentage of U.S. electricity that the technology industry is expected to consume by 2011

500,000 square feet: Size of Microsoft's data-center building in Quincy, Grant County

24,000 homes: Number of housing units that can be powered by the energy consumed by a large data center running at full capacity

$3.4 million: Microsoft's electrical bill last year in Quincy

Top users of electricity in Grant County

THE TOP THREE electrical customers for the Grant County Public Utility District, how much energy they used in 2008 and how much they spent on electricity:

REC Solar Grade Silicon: 482,735,122 kilowatt hours used, $13.2 million spent

Eka Chemicals: 309,022,000 kilowatt hours used, $7.9 million spent

Microsoft (Phase I of project): 181,803,520 kilowatt hours used,

$3.4 million spent

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If the mill embodied the Industrial Revolution, the data center has become the factory of the Internet Age.

Spanning 10 football fields, filled with tens of thousands of servers, data centers are the information mills that churn out the goods and services of the digital world, processing online bank transactions, delivering e-mail, uploading photos, streaming video to Internet users around the world.

These centers, which can cost upward of $100 million to build, also suck massive amounts of energy. Electricity powers the servers in giant facilities that have to be precisely cooled to keep the machines from melting under their own heat.

Reducing energy costs has made building a greener data center the environmental grail of the tech industry.

"We think it's possible to double computing while driving down energy consumption," said Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist at Microsoft, one of the largest data-center players in the world.

The company has been experimenting with clean energy, recycling wastewater, turning off the air conditioning and turning to open-air cooling at data centers, with the goal of reducing the company's carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2012.

Estimates project the technology industry will consume 3 percent of all electricity in the United States by 2011. While that may seem a small amount, the growth of online computing has concerned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A large data center running at full capacity uses the same energy as 24,000 homes.

"We saw this spiraling out of control," said Andrew Fanara, a program manager at the EPA's Energy Star program in Seattle who has studied how to make data centers more efficient. "People would say 'crisis' and 'data center' in the same sentence."

Microsoft's data-center building in the rural Grant County town of Quincy covers 500,000 square feet. That's just Phase 1. The original plan envisioned six buildings that eventually would total 1.5 million square feet.

The company was the third-largest electrical customer in Grant County last year, where several tech companies also have opened centers to take advantage of cheap, clean hydropower. The only larger customers were a manufacturer and a chemical plant. Microsoft's electrical bill last year in Quincy was $3.4 million.

The servers power Hotmail, search engines and other online products, including Windows Media Player. The company also is building Azure, a network to deliver services online, also known as "cloud computing."

With corporate e-mail, for example, Microsoft has started offering e-mail systems for businesses that are handled by the data centers, meaning those businesses no longer need office servers to store the messages.

Improved efficiency

Bernard says the company has improved data-center efficiency by 50 percent over the past year by experimenting with construction designs, as well as by simply adjusting behavior, such as turning up the thermostat.

The company has developed an online software tool — an electricity dashboard — so that data-center staff can track how much carbon a Microsoft online product is emitting based on which servers it uses, which facility the servers are in and the mix of energy being used. The company shares the tool freely with other companies.

Microsoft also has toyed with several designs for the centers. One in San Antonio uses treated wastewater to cool servers, saving the company from having to circulate 602,000 gallons of drinking water a day through the building.

In Dublin, Ireland, the company this year plans to open a data center that uses outside air to cool the servers, increasing efficiency 30 to 50 percent.

"Instead of running my air conditioners when it's 75 out, which a lot of people do, we just open up the windows and draw the air through the house," said Christian Belady, the principal power and cooling architect with Microsoft's Global Foundation Services.

Microsoft is pushing manufacturers to produce servers that can tolerate wider ranges of temperature and humidity. Servers now are designed to run at temperatures from 68 to 77 degrees. Microsoft is asking server vendors to design machines that can run between 50 and 95 degrees.

Gen 3 data center

In another project, it is preparing to open what it calls a Gen 3 — third generation — data center in the Chicago area. "We're trying to bring the whole mass production, Model T view on how to build a data center," Belady said.

Instead of putting racks of servers in rooms, the company asked vendors to build a server and cooling system designed to operate in a shipping container, which can be trucked to the Chicago building and plugged in.

"What happens now is we essentially have created plug-and-play environment, where all we provide is a power plug, a cooling plug with water in it and a data plug," Belady said. The number of servers then can grow and shrink depending on needs.

Positive example

Eventually, the company imagines doing away with the building entirely and just having a large parking lot, surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire, filled with these containers.

The EPA's Fanara said Microsoft is setting a positive example, sharing tools and encouraging others in the industry to manage resources.

"The amount of time, money that goes into managing this resources, on the one hand, it's a competitive advantage," he said. "I think they feel like sharing that with industry counterparts is a good thing so people can share good practices."

Belady declined to talk about how much Microsoft could save in terms of dollars. "Short term for existing [data centers], you're talking tens of percentage points," he said. "Long term, we're looking for dramatic order-of-magnitude cost" reductions.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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