Data center air recycling saves cash-strapped greenhouse

By recycling server air, a university's high-performance computing (HPC) department to protect a historic greenhouse from shutting down.

Forget about a green data center. The University of Notre Dame's high-performance computing (HPC) department has

taken things a step further. It now reuses the heat generated by its servers to warm up a historic greenhouse that the city of South Bend, Ind., has threatened to shut down.

Under the direction of Paul Brenner, a researcher in Notre Dame's HPC division, the university will place a containerized data center next to a local greenhouse, the Ella Morris and Muessel-Ellison Botanical Conservatories and Potawatomi Greenhouse. Once completed in August, the prototype data center will pipe in heat from the back of working servers and into the greenhouse, heating it during the cooler spring, fall and winter months. The project could potentially save the greenhouse from shutting down for good.

Martha Lewis, the president of the Botanical Society of South Bend, which operates the greenhouse, said it costs about $1,000 a day to heat the facility during the winter months. In today's trying economic times, the group has had a hard time getting assurance from the city that it won't shut the greenhouse down.

"It's a tremendous amount of money for taxpayers," Lewis said. "We have to figure out how to heat this place and keep it going."

Staving off a shutdown
To minimize costs, the new data center will be housed in a standard shipping container. Most major server hardware vendors -- including Sun Microsystems, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. -- also have custom-built containerized data centers, but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Brenner's cost about $10,000 -- $2,500 for the shipping container itself, with the remainder going to insulation, 220 V electrical panels, distribution, lighting, ventilation louvers, access doors, and a small backup air conditioning unit.

In addition, the prototype data center will be able to reuse some of the greenhouse's humidified air -- which is ideal for servers -- in the fall, winter and spring. In the summer, the shipping container will pull in fresh air from outside or use a small backup air conditioner.

Brenner heard about the greenhouse's plight through the local media and approached the organization last year with his idea for a pilot program: installing just one rack of servers in the greenhouse's Arizona Desert Dome, where cacti and other southwestern plants were dying for lack of heat.

The experiment was a success. Now the organization plans to expand its operation with a containerized data center. The project recently won a Green Enterprise IT Award from the Uptime Institute, a data center industry group.

Reusing waste heat from the data center is novel but not unprecedented. Canadian media company Quebecor uses the heat from its data center to warm adjacent office space. And in Switzerland, IBM helped a company called GIB-Services reuse its data center waste heat to help warm a nearby municipal swimming pool.

The video below explains how the greenhouse data center will work.

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

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