Article

A solar-powered data center saves energy its own way

Mark Fontecchio

A couple of weeks ago, when Phil Nail gave directions to the data center of Affordable Internet Services Online Inc., or AISO.Net, he gave his visitor a parting warning: "Look out for the guard dogs."

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In Pictures
Check out the photo slideshow of AISO.net's data center

The dogs ended up being a trio of canines -- two with visible limps -- that welcomed a morning visitor with angry eyes and fierce barks. Once Nail calmed them down, though, they turned cute. Charlie, the 12-year-old beagle, and Jack, the 8-year-old terrier, sniffed around the visitor while Baby, the 2-year-old Queensland heeler, jumped up to be petted. When the dogs get hot -- apparently their on-site houses aren't cool enough for this dusty desert corner of California -- they seek shade beneath two solar panel arrays.

We felt that generating our own energy would be a good way of us giving back to our planet while at the same time saving money on energy.
Phil Nail,
founderAISO.Net

In fact, if it weren't for the solar panels, you might mistake this Romoland, Calif.-based data center that Nail founded and now oversees for an animal feed store. There are no biometric readers and no magnetic swipe cards. Although there are some hard-to-see monitoring cameras, and one in the server room, the only one visible is that which snaps a picture of the solar panels every five minutes for purposes of display on the AISO.Net Web site.

"We're on a dirt road here, and nobody has a clue," Nail said. "People drive by and never have any idea of what it is over here."

But despite its unsophisticated veneer, AISO.Net takes data center energy consumption seriously, a stance more companies need to develop, according to an August report on data center energy efficiency from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the report, data center energy consumption is a growing source of concern. In 2006, for example, U.S. data centers consumed an estimated 61 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy, more than double the amount consumed in 2000, at a cost of some $4.5 billion. With the EPA's prediction that data power consumption could double again by 2011, at a cost of nearly $7.5 billion, companies like AISO.Net have turned to alternatives such as solar power to cut costs.

Sophistication meets simplicity
Nail's off-the-beaten-track data center is a paradoxical mix of complexity and crude simplicity. To reach it, you'll need to follow a sign that reads "Burro Xing Next 1 Mile" and travel a dirt road, but the facility uses outside air to cool the data center (nighttime temperatures drop enough to allow for such cooling). Nail has a hot-aisle/cold-aisle configuration, but he removes the hot air from the hot aisle via an oscillating fan that you could probably buy at Wal-Mart.

But the most remarkable thing about AISO.Net is that the company's 2000-square-foot data center, which includes about a 400-square-foot server room -- is powered almost entirely by the sun. A total of 120 solar panels provide the juice for the company's 15,000 customers. The only exception is the company's backup generator, which uses propane fuel instead of diesel.

Nail -- a self-described "young 51" -- strolls around the property in a blue Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. He wishes that AISO.Net were located in the adjacent town of Sun City, he said, if just to be able to capitalize on the name. But when your electricity bill is $0 a month, you don't complain.

Yes, being solar-powered has cost money. Nail estimates about $100,000 in total infrastructure costs. But he also estimates saving $3,000 a month in electricity now that it's built.

The diagram below depicts how AISO.Net's data center operates using solar power:

Warming up to power and cooling
Back in 2001, when Nail began running AISO.Net on solar power, his efforts might have been considered groundbreaking. But now the industry and oversight organizations are starting to catch up to Nail's way of thinking.

In addition to the EPA's August report on data center consumption, the EPA and IT industry leaders are now discussing the establishment of a metric to measure the energy efficiency of a data center. The metric would account for two major factors: how much power goes into a facility and how much power reaches a data center's IT equipment. The more power reaches your IT equipment compared with the total load, the better. One version of the metric is called power usage effectiveness, or PUE.

Andrew Fanara, who heads the EPA Energy Star product development team, said companies can avail themselves of plenty of opportunities to make data centers more energy efficient. Some measures are quite simple, such as shutting off servers that aren't in use. But in many cases, he emphasized, it's about getting the message to the right people.

"For a lot of organizations, they need to implement some sort of plan if they're not already," Fanara said. "Given how critical the IT computing backbone is, we have to encourage the industry. And to do it, you often have to break down some of the challenges that face any organization, especially the people barriers."

Since Nail is the head of his company, human resistance to green IT isn't exactly the problem. Nail isn't sure what his PUE is, but his total power load is courtesy of the sun, not coal-fired power plants, so he doesn't worry too much about it.

Best practices, not bragging rights
At AISO.Net, the server room is about 200 square feet. It contains five APC cabinets, but with AISO.Net using server virtualization, it could drop to fewer than three full cabinets. Yet the company boasts 15,000 customers and hosted the worldwide series of Live Earth concerts held last month.

With server virtualization, Nail has consolidated 120 AMD-based white boxes to four AMD-based IBM System x machines. They're running about 140 virtual machines via VMware's x86 server virtualization software. Nail is selling the old white boxes on eBay and may have to bring on a fifth xSeries server. When AISO.Net hosted the Live Earth concerts, it temporarily brought in one fully stocked IBM BladeCenter server to handle the additional load.

Nail began running AISO.Net on solar power well before the concept of a green data center was a twinkle in the eye of vendors looking to gain an edge. Nail chose rural Southern California, not a site in a Bay area technology park. And he runs a green data center by deploying green practices. Some companies might instead write a check to the government to gain energy credits to become LEED-certified or pay for carbon offsets (i.e., paying for carbon emissions elsewhere instead of reducing emissions itself). But AISO.Net eschews those shortcuts, preferring to employ environmental practices at its own site instead of offshoring them with a payout. And Nail's environmental consciousness extends beyond his business. The Nails' home, which is next door to the data center, is also 100% solar powered.

"We felt that generating our own energy would be a good way of us giving back to our planet while at the same time saving money on energy," he said.

For more on data center energy efficiency:
EPA sends final report on data center energy efficiency to Congress

Data center energy bill passes the house

Green data center advice: Is LEED feasible?
Next up
And Nail's energy-saving efforts don't end there. Over the next six months, he has some projects on tap, such as installing an underground tank that can hold all the used water from the data center. That water will then be re-used to clean the solar panels and water the green roof. The company is also building a custom solar panel cleaner. The used cleaning water will drain into gutters, which will guide the water back to the underground storage tank and be recycled as well.

The green roof is another project. Nail wants to level about 6 inches of dirt on top of his data center and then put grass and plants on top., which will block some heat from entering the facility and help cool the data center.

A green philosophy and business practices have also won Nail customers. Live Earth was one of them. Charles Cleveland is another. Cleveland operates the www.2020gre.org Web site, which promotes complete energy independence for California by 2020 through solar and wind power. Cleveland heard about AISO.Net through a Democratic organization in nearby Escondido, where he lives. At first, he didn't know AISO.Net was solar powered.

"I was thrilled to learn about it and, of course, to put a link to his site from my site as an example of what we should all be doing," he said. "Every opportunity that I have to steer business his way, I do it."

Cleveland has also had a chance to visit the data center and meet Nail and his friendly dogs. "He is extremely down to earth," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.


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