Microsoft to power data center from sewage, landfills

Garbage and poop jokes aside, idea of using biogas for data center power cells doesn't stink

Microsoft has been notably forward-thinking in data-center design over the past few years, at least the design of its own data centers.

Last year it announced it was building a data center inside an old barn that was partly open to outside air so it could take advantage of natural air circulation and heat leakage as part of its plan to cool the place.

It ran a prototype data center in a tent for seven months to make sure the idea would work.

Earlier this month it announced it was building one in Wyoming, which isn't that innovative in itself, but how many data centers have you ever visited in Wyoming? (The state offered $10 million in incentives for a data center Microsoft said will cost $112 million to build.)

Amidst a shift from a business model totally dependent on selling software to be installed on a customer's own hardware to one in which Microsoft has to host and maintain SaaS or cloud versions of many of its own apps, to be sold by subscription, the ultimate software company is having to expand its network of data centers rapidly.

It has expanded its facilities in the Seattle area, in Dublin and located others in Quincy, Wash., Chicago, San Antonio, Tex. And Southern Virginia.

The "mega data centers" among the new crowd cost as much as $500 million to build.

Smells like renewable power supplies

Microsoft's newest plan is to power a data center partially using heat and biogas generated by landfills and sewage treatment plants.

[Fill in your own joke here]

The design calls for a modular data center in which the hardware and support systems are housed in crates similar to shipping containers.

It will include facitlities to collect methane produced by landfills and sewage treatment plants to be used in fuel cells that will provide electricity for the hardware in the IT PACS (Pre-assembled Components) – Microsoft's term for data center modules built inside shipping containers.

The theoretical savings in power and carbon-dioxide emissions is impressive, though. According to Microsoft, a 200 kilowatt prototype data center will eliminate more than two million pounds of CO2 emissions per year, an amount Microsoft said is equivalent to 300 Honda Civics.

The "data plant" concept is a long-term strategy, not a plan for any data centers under construction already according to the blog explaining it, written by Christian Belady, Microsoft’s General Manager of Data Center Services.

While the savings in CO2 emissions and electricity are significant, being able to remove all or most of a data center's power needs from the grid also reduces the number of UPSs, back-up generators, power-conditioning gateways, bypass circuits and other layers of emergency support that add complexity and additional points of failure to the design, Belady wrote.

Eco-efficient data centers can save money, be more reliable because the designs are simpler and take advantage of essentially free resources like landfill methane supplies.

Ultimately they're an accommodation to allow resource-intensive data centers to operate within a national infrastructure often not robust enough to support them, however, he wrote.

Inevitably, the poop/trash/Microsoft connection will generate as many jokes as the prototype generates kilowatts.

If it works, however, the Data Plant design will make eco-friendly data center designs much more mainstream than they are now (which is not at all). So far I know of no other data centers built in barns or tents, but there is more science and a lot more renewable-fuel research and support behind the Data Plant than behind the open-air data center.

It will be interesting to see how well it works (from well upwind, of course).

From Belady:

"A constraint we all need to work with, is the fact that our electrical grid was never methodically planned or engineered for the significant growth we are experiencing today. And it certainly was not engineered to take on the proliferation of data center growth. Independence from the power grid will allow our industry to minimize its impact and ease some of the constriction already taking place. The Data Plant is one way of giving us an ability to manage the growth of our clouds in a thoughtful manner: building in sustainability from the ground-up, so we can run sustainably every day. Our goal is to reduce the impact of our operations and products, and to be a leader in environmental responsibility." –Christian Belady, Microsoft’s General Manager of Data Center Services, Microsoft Global Foundation Services Blog, April 18, 2012

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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