Project curbs an appetite for energy
Cool ideas for keeping data centers running smoothly
Professors Bahgat Sammakia, left, and Kanad Ghose.
Unless you work in IT, the data center that feeds your Internet searches, loads movies onto your iPad and keeps your business running smoothly is out of sight, out of mind.
Until the day the data center goes dark.
No e-mailing, posting or shopping for you. And no access to your digital records by your doctor, banker or insurance agent.
So what happened?
A data center is a room packed with racks of servers running applications that enable businesses to operate and people to communicate. To run efficiently and handle fluctuating spikes in demand, it operates at full capacity all the time. The equipment gets hot and, without constant cooling, can fail.
Failure doesn’t happen often, but the cost in wasted energy of running both servers and cooling systems at full bore is significant. New York state spends close to $600 million on utility costs annually for powering and cooling its data centers. Nationwide, data centers consume about 2.5 percent of the total national energy expenditure, enough to power two medium-size cities for most of the year.
And as more people worldwide rely on constant access to the Internet, the number of data centers is growing, as is electricity consumption. In a report, Stanford University consulting professor Jonathan G. Koomey says data center electricity use in the United States and the rest of the world grew by about 36 percent and 56 percent, respectively, from 2005 to 2010.
“With all of that comes the need to build power stations because you not only have to provide power to the data center, you have to cool down the data center itself,” says Kanad Ghose, chair of the Computer Science Department.
“It’s ironic: We’re spending more energy to cool down the heat that results from wasted energy.”
Ghose and Bahgat Sammakia, distinguished professor of mechanical engineering, vice president for research and director of the University’s New York State Center of Excellence in Small Scale Systems Integration and Packaging, began collaborating on data centers about four years ago. Ghose tackles the IT side, Sammakia the thermal side.
Already they’ve made progress.
“Instead of blasting everything with a shot of cold air, we can make it more focused and not overcool,” Ghose says. “And we’ve come up with techniques that control the servers and manage the workflow in a way that will improve the efficiency of some servers by as much as 30 to 40 percent.”
Recognition of their work took a big step forward last fall with the creation of the Center for Energy-Smart Electronic Systems (ES2).
“Finally, people are realizing how important it is to conserve energy in the IT equipment and cooling system,” Ghose says. “People were skeptical. Now they’re asking, ‘How soon can you come up with solutions?’”
ES2 is the national Industry/University Cooperative Research Center in Energy-Smart Electronic Systems, a first-of-its-kind research center dedicated to making the electronics industry greener. Besides Binghamton, academic members include Villanova University and the University of Texas at Arlington. Businesses include IBM, Facebook, Bloomberg and Endicott Interconnect Technologies. The venture is funded by the members and by the National Science Foundation.
“We’re taking a holistic approach to the energy issues surrounding data centers,” says Sammakia, ES2 director and winner of the 2012 Thermi Award for his contributions to the field of semiconductor thermal management.
“When you bring together these large, multidisciplinary teams, you can begin to tackle the really important problems. Data centers present a series of such problems. We need to pare back the power they consume while preserving reliability and speed. If we can do that, we’ll be saving companies, universities and governments money as well as helping the planet. Solutions in this area will be satisfying economically and environmentally.”
Already, nine data center research projects have been funded, with Binghamton taking the lead. A demonstration data center is being constructed at the University, using 35 racks of servers donated by IBM and an award from the National Science Foundation. It will be part of the new Center of Excellence building under construction at the Innovative Technologies Complex.
The quest for energy efficiency doesn’t begin or end with data centers.
“The goal of ES2 is to focus on data centers, but the overarching goal is much broader,” Ghose says. “It starts with chips and goes all the way to software systems, cooling, packaging, up to the level of the room and the building.”
“There are two challenges if you look at energy consumption. At the level of the data center, the focus is on how to keep things running cool and not wear them out. With cell phones and tablets, the issue is not cooling them down, it’s to prolong the battery life,” Ghose says. “These are two diverse needs on two different scales.”
But it all comes down to reliability and access, he points out.
“Cell phones have become the most popular device for accessing the Web. And behind every cell phone, we are using features and services that require one or more data