Server Farms: How Biggest Resource Users Drive Sustainable Innovation

A 90,000 square foot server space in South Bend, Indiana.

Server farms, also known as data or processing centers, are the nuts and bolts that keep almost 2 billion people worldwide online, and as such they use resources intensively. A modest server farm might use 15 megawatts a day, 10 megawatts of which go to powering processers and five of which go to cooling them. Another 360,000 gallons of water each day would additionally be used in the cooling process.

As Google has been exploring ocean-based server farms that efficiently use the wind and sea water for energy and cooling, Facebook has just announced that their new server farm is 31% more efficient than the industry average and should save millions of dollars in electrical costs each year. As the data processing industry becomes one of the biggest industrial users of energy and water resources, the sector is starting to make its mark on efficiency innovation.

Energy Use
Microsoft’s 198 megawatt plan in Northlake, Illinois can use enough electricity to power almost 100,000 American homes. The capacity for this amount of energy not only stresses the grid, it has a huge carbon footprint from coal based suppliers and costs the companies millions in electrical bills. Even with this huge energy footprint, Microsoft spent 82% of its $500 million design and construction budget on mechanical and electrical infrastructure in order to get the most performance from every watt.

These enormous electrical concerns are also what prompted Facebook’s recently announced energy efficiency innovation at its Pineville, Oregon data center. The center includes a 480 volt electrical distribution system to ensure 93% of grid electricity makes it into the servers. LED lighting, hot air recycling and streamlined components add to increased efficiency. Even with these improvements, the design of the center made it cheaper than normal to build. Fortunately for the sustainable design world and unlike many of its tight-lipped competitors, Facebook is publishing all its innovative design specifications in its Open Compute Project.

Water Use
When Microsoft built its enormous new server farm in Northlake, Illinois in 2008, part of the agreement was that Northlake would buy an extra 2 million gallons of water capacity from neighboring Franklin Park. This amount represents a massive increase in water usage, as the town of Northlake only used about 5 million gallons of water per day before the server farm.

Fortunately, in terms of sustainability, the water that is used to cool server farms does not need to be treated to drinkable standards at large costs (although most of it currently is). Additionally, the water used is not polluted when it is released other than being at higher than normal temperatures. These attributes make it easy for companies to recycle water and reuse greywater to limit their resource footprint and lower costs.

Microsoft also developed its San Antonio server farm in 2008, which uses up to 8 million gallons of month of recycled greywater to cool its processers. Google has been experimenting with treating its own water from an industrial canal in Belgium, locating next to municipal wastewater plants to tap effluent and a data center in 2010 where harvested rainwater would provide between 40 and 100 percent of its water needs, depending on the time of the year. The companies, of course, clearly state that they are investing in these innovative solutions not only to improve their environmental footprint, but to save money and increase reliability of water sources.

Despite the improvements in resource efficiency, server farms are still highly intensive users at even at their most efficient, prompting some critics to ask if energy efficiency is enough. Greenpeace, in response to Facebook’s newly announced data center, commended the energy efficiency efforts, but also stated that as the IT industry grows, “Efficiency is simply not enough.” The answer, according to a Greenpeace climate campaigner Casey Harrel, is to “decouple its growth from its emissions footprint by using clean, renewable energy to power its business instead of dirty coal and dangerous nuclear power.” Time will tell if the server farm industry, with its track record of resource efficiency advancements, will continue to drive sustainable design innovation.

Photo: Global Access Point