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Microsoft, Facebook Make Green Data Center Push

Technology giants announce plans to use wind power for their data centers as the movement towards renewable energy and data center efficiency gains steam.

This story was updated on Nov. 21, 2013

Data center wars are nothing new. But where previous battles have focused on the size, speed and sophistication of each new data center, the latest efforts to re-arm have instead centered on tackling environmental concerns.

Whether it’s turning to renewable energy sources or coming up with innovative approaches to power creation and data center efficiency, one company after another keeps raising the bar on reducing the carbon footprint of these IT nerve centers.

The most recent salvos came this month, when Facebook and Microsoft announced significant commitments to powering data centers with the wind.

First, Microsoft said it would buy up all the power produced over the next 20 years at RES America’s 110 megawatt Keechi wind project 70 miles northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. The project’s 55 turbines reportedly will feed into the same grid that powers Microsoft’s data center in San Antonio, though the output will not be sufficient to meet all of the facility’s power needs.

Meanwhile, Facebook took things a step further with its announcement in a blog post that its planned data center in Altoona, Iowa, would be 100 percent wind-powered.

That achievement was made possible when MidAmerican Energy, which announced in May that it was investing $1.9 billion to expand its wind generation facilities, agreed to take over construction and operation of the planned Altoona wind farm from RPM Access, a wind farm developer and operator that had been working with Facebook on the project. At about the same time, MidAmerican shelved plans for a nuclear power plant in a coincidental but unrelated decision, according to a MidAmerican spokesperson.

MidAmerican’s wind project will result in 138 megawatts of wind power, or “more than what our data center is likely to require for the foreseeable future,” as Vincent Van Son, Facebook’s data center energy manager, wrote in the post.

Facebook’s and Microsoft’s approaches -- buying rights to renewable power generated near their data centers -- could become a popular model for data centers and utilities alike, said Andy Lawrence, an analyst with 451 Research.

“They are helping to provide a return on investment for renewable, and this will encourage further investment,” Lawrence said via email. “Their contribution to the overall cause is quite significant, especially in providing leadership.”

[Read about Seattle city officials' plan to recycle waste heat from nearby data centers to provide sustainable heat and hot water to buildings in "Seattle's Plan To Warm City With Data Center Waste Heat."]

Microsoft is also looking to lead beyond its own data centers by working on making its customers’ data centers more energy efficient. Specifically, the company revealed in a recently published white paper that it was experimenting with incorporating fuel cells directly into server racks to make them self-powering. By effectively putting a tiny power plant on each rack in the data center, thereby minimizing the amount of power that’s wasted as it moves through the electrical grid, Microsoft estimates its new approach could double the power efficiency of data centers.

Lawrence said fuel cells are gaining traction as a way to power data centers, but that Microsoft’s approach represents a departure from previous efforts, such as Google’s introduction of fuel cell batteries at the rack level a few years ago.

“We think fuel cells will play an increasing role in the data center, especially where grid connectivity is unstable or where power is expensive,” Lawrence said. “It is probably too early to say if rack level fuel cells will be adopted, but it is certainly innovative.”

Elsewhere, IBM received a patent for inventing a new technique that would enable cloud computing data center operators to dynamically redistribute workloads to systems that are utilized or simply use less power. IBM claims its invention will enable operators to simplify and reduce the costs of deploying cloud environments.

Lawrence said, however, that before companies agree to start moving workloads around to maximize energy efficiency, they would want assurances that service levels won’t suffer. And that, he said, would require integration of the technology with underlying systems, as well as implementation of policy and control systems.

“This is a good development, but it is only part of the picture,” Lawrence said.

Then again, sometimes a part of the picture can make a big difference. Case in point: Portugal Telecom’s new data center in Covilha, Portugal. The facility, which opened in September, includes a number of energy-conservation features, such as using external air as a coolant, that are common in new data centers.

But its rainwater collection system, which forms a moat around the main building, represents an innovative approach to water preservation, “which few have paid enough attention to,” Lawrence said.

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