Madison, Wis. – Information technology professionals like to think of their industry as a clean one, but when it comes to its carbon footprint, is the IT industry really some sort of Sasquatch?
Unfortunately, IT is more of an energy-consuming “Big Foot” than it would like to admit, according to Bryan Chan, president of Madison’s SupraNet Communications, and he points to the energy usage of Internet companies like SupraNet as proof that a lack of smoke stacks doesn’t necessarily mean “green.”
Chan is seeking to create a model for the “greening of IT” with the construction of a 10,000-square-foot green data center within the next 18 to 24 months. The goal is to create a “renewable Internet” by providing Internet hosting services with a zero carbon footprint, and Chan thinks it can be done by taking advantage of Wisconsin’s wintry climate.
Appetite for energy
According to Chan, less than 10 percent of the energy used by a data center actually goes into powering computers; the rest goes to providing an environment suitable for operation. Creating that environment has led to some are troubling statistics about the industry’s appetite for power: In 2005, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab reported that energy usage by Internet service providers alone had exceeded color television sets as energy consumers in the United States.
“As an industry, we spend more on electricity than the entire state of Tennessee,” Chan said.
Most of the energy consumed by a data center is devoted to cooling needs created by servers that run hot. Virtually all the energy used in servers is transmitted out in the form of heat, and since servers transfer heat from front to back, there are “hot aisles” of server racks where the backs of servers face each other. Given Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles every 18 months, more energy is being consumed and more heat is being generated with each successive product generation.
Chan believes that data centers probably are being over-cooled, which consumes excess energy, and he recommends the temperature standard of 74 degrees be increased to about 85 degrees. What’s more, Wisconsin’s energy demand is largely met by coal-fired power plants, so the Internet is powered here by a fossil fuel that contributes to greenhouse gases.
With a little help from Wisconsin’s “natural air conditioning,” Chan would like to use the state’s cool air to regulate the hot aisles of data centers, but he needs to apply air exchange principles to accommodate it.
The trouble is that those who already have found a way to do it – namely Yahoo and Google – aren’t exactly spilling the secret. Yahoo, which is positioning itself as the “green” search engine, moved its data center from the Bay Area to the Pacific Northwest to take advantage of cooler air, Chan said, but the company has declined to provide any of the mechanical details.
“They only use their air conditioning three months out of the year, which is incredible to us because we’re running it 24 hours a day,” Chan said.
Not to be deterred, Chan has enlisted the help of local business partners – Matt Peterson, owner of Scenic Wonders, and Peter Tan, an architect with Strang – to invent a variable air volume system. A VAV system is a technique for controlling heating, ventilation, and air conditioning that would use outside air to cool the data center when the ambient outside air is below 70 degrees. The waste heat generated by the servers would then be used to heat perimeter offices.
Peterson has been involved in “green computing” through the Vertatique project, an effort to share information about sustainability in computing and electronic media. He believes the concept is achievable and eventually could be used to transform existing data centers in Madison, where most business computing is provided by in-house technology. Peterson acknowledged that Yahoo and Google believe some of the information about their green data centers is a proprietary competitive advantage, but he said others such as Sun Microsystems approach their green computing work more openly.
He believes enough is known about best green business practices to meet Chan’s timetable. “I think it’s very achievable,” Peterson said. “The technology and practices to do so are pretty well defined. There is a lot of work being done on this elsewhere in the country, especially in California.”
Chan believes photo voltaic (PV) solar technology, which holds the promise of capturing more of the sun’s energy than existing solar technology, eventually will be part of the solution in a variety of buildings. One such technology is being developed by Nanosolar, a Palo Alto, Calif. company whose goal is to produce ubiquitous solar PV electricity. The company uses nanotech to “print” semiconductor ink circuit boards, thereby dramatically reducing the cost of producing solar cells by one-fifth to one-tenth the current industry standard per kilowatt.
For now, however, Chan would be content to employ a little Wisconsin cool at SupraNet’s new and existing data centers, and use biodiesel powered generators to help ease electrical energy consumption during periods of peak usage.
By developing a renewable Internet, one that can be touted on client Websites, Chan said SupraNet can provide a model for IT companies that aren’t in the Yahoo stratosphere.
Janet Brandt, executive director of the Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corp., said SupraNet’s idea is part of a national trend toward incoporating green building principles, from natural daylighting to the use of recycled construction materials to renewable energy technology, in various kinds of structures. Thanks to companies like Johnson Controls, which is best known for its facility management and control systems, she said more executives understand the triple bottom line – business, social, and environmental – value of green buildings.
“I think the green data center has got enormous potential,” she said during a working group meeting of the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming. “Wisconsin looks like it’s going to get serious about setting greenhouse reduction targets, and there are a lot of different pieces to that.”
Getting a charge out of energy
The lack of green data centers make it difficult to estimate the cost and energy savings payback, but Chan believes the savings will benefit providers as well as clients. He envisions a shift away from charging for bandwidth and rack space and toward charging for energy usage, which practically demands that providers help clients become more energy and cost efficient on the Internet.
“Everyone in IT should be aware of their environmental footprint,” Chan said. “We are not the green industry we need to be.”