A green solution is not a one-shot affair, say researchers at IBM

What has ‘green' energy got to do with information technology? Plenty, if you ask P. Gopalakrishnan, vice-president, India Software Lab, IBM.

Globally, data centres, which house large stacks of storage and computing power, are one of the fastest growing power consuming segments and, so, they are a prime candidate for a concerted attempt at energy saving, Dr. Gopalakrishnan says.

Based in Bangalore, the lab has spearheaded some of the company's key innovations in energy in the last 10 years, not only in-house but also at its clients' locations worldwide. The lab recently announced that it has deployed an array of solar panels on the rooftop of its facility in Embassy Golf Links in Bangalore.

Dr. Gopalakrishnan says a part of the lab's mandate is to address energy efficiency issues.

“We have two objectives: to drive operational efficiencies and to integrate technologies and showcase them to demonstrate the art of the possible.”

Energy efficiency is not just a matter of use of electrical energy, but also of space in buildings and many other dimensions, he adds. Last year, IBM announced that it delivered a water-cooled supercomputer to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Three-pronged solution

The lab has been working on the ‘green' energy data centre for about two years. Dr. Gopalakrishnan says there are three major dimensions in reducing energy consumption, not all of which are about the quantum of power that is drawn from the grid. The first aspect of this is the constant endeavour to use technologies that help reduce the “sprawl” of data centres. “When we started, we had about 30 data centres, but we have consolidated them into a dozen centres in the country now. This has been achieved by innovations in server technologies, which made them denser,” he says.

Automation in data centres is the second prong of the strategy to reduce energy consumption. Real-time monitoring enables data centre administrators to find out which part of the IT infrastructure is being used at what time. While virtualisation helps in doing more with less in terms of hardware, automation makes it possible for the administrator to power down parts of the unutilised infrastructure.

The third aspect of the strategy has been the development of systems using new innovations. For instance, IBM has pioneered the use of water-cooled systems in which the doors of stacks that house hardware contain pipes carrying water, which transfer heat in a far more efficient manner. Other innovations enable “finer grain control” of systems by reducing the frequencies of CPUs or voltages.

Targeted cooling

Atop these three dimensions is another layer, not related to a data centre's IT infrastructure per se, but which aims at the energy efficiency of the overall infrastructure. This has to do with the cooling systems, the building layout and other factors that result in lower energy consumption.

Precision cooling systems, for instance, target specific points in a data centre that result in more advanced evacuation of heat from where they are generated. “The systems are reactive in the sense that they not only target but actually vary according to real-time conditions,” explains Dr. Gopalakrishnan. “If a particular storage stack, for instance, is not generating heat, the system will not direct cooler air towards it,” he adds. Thermal mapping technologies, which enable three-dimensional mapping of data centres, provides far more accurate methods of measuring temperature flows inside a data centre.

Icing on the cake

“Building a solar-powered system was only a logical step for us, given the innovations we had made over the years,” said Dr. Gopalakrishnan. The array of panels on the rooftop of the software lab generates one-fifth of the power requirements of IBM's data centre. It is not just one technology or solution that has enabled this, he says. It is based on systems using multiple technologies, such as high-voltage Direct Current (DC) power systems, using software solutions that integrate and drive these systems, and the use of services capabilities by utilising the skill of people who understand these technologies, he says.

Because computing power in ubiquitous devices such as laptops, mobile phones or desktop computers are all powered by DC, it makes sense to use DC power rather than AC, which is meant for long-range transmission of power, observes Murali Kota, chief scientist, IBM.

“Solar power is ideally suited for a data centre because it is a natural source of DC power,” he says. It eliminates the need for AC-DC conversion, which results in a 10 percentage point gain, when compared to AC power sources, he adds. “As data centres consume tens to hundreds of MW, this saving is not small,” he points out.

A typical data centre, says Dr. Gopalakrishnan, consumes about 250 kilowatts of power.