When it came time for Hewlett-Packard to decide on a location for its new data center, the company could have considered variables like network connectivity, local talent, or proximity to corporate headquarters. Instead, a 100-year weather report convinced HP to build its new 360,000-square-foot facility in breezy Billingham, England.
“You get a lot of cool and moist winds coming over the northeast coast of Britain,” says Ian Brooks, HP’s European head of sustainable computing. By harnessing these winds with massive fans, Brooks says, HP has created a system that uses 40 percent less energy than conventional methods of keeping data centers cool.
HP isn’t the only company taking its cues from nature when it comes to the design and construction of data centers, clusters of server computers that run Internet services and store and crunch data. These facilities have been the smokestacks of the digital era because they use so much electricity: not only does it take a lot of power to run the machines themselves, but data centers are heavily air conditioned because servers generate a lot of heat and don’t run well in environments much warmer than 25 ºC. As demand for online services skyrockets, the EPA predicts, U.S. data centers could nearly double their 2006 levels of energy consumption by 2011, reaching 100 billion kilowatt-hours per year—enough to power 10 million homes. By 2020, data centers will account for 18 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the Smart 2020 report released by the Climate Group, a nonprofit organization.
To reduce the environmental—and financial—burdens, more and more companies are trying innovative designs for data centers. For instance, at the HP center in Britain, known as Wynyard, fans more than two meters in diameter pull the North Sea winds into a mixing chamber, where they cool the warm air given off by the center’s servers. That air is funneled into a large cavity beneath the servers, directed through vents in the floor, and then circulated throughout a series of aisles to chill the computers. The resulting warm exhaust is extracted, mixed with the incoming fresh air, and recirculated.
By eliminating the need for energy-intensive cooling equipment, the Wynyard facility cuts 12,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the total generated by the industry-standard data center. That is the equivalent of taking nearly 3,000 midsize vehicles off the road.
Another innovative data center is one that Yahoo opened in September 2010 in Lockport, New York. In this case, the inspiration came from chicken coops rather than coastal winds. “Chickens throw off a fair bit of heat; servers throw off a fair bit of heat,” says Christina Page, Yahoo’s director of climate and energy strategy. “So we built a long, tall, narrow building with a coop along the top to vent the air.”