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Carnegie Mellon University opens new Data Center Observatory

Carnegie Mellon opened a new showcase data center that doubles as a research facility to study data center power consumption.

PITTSBURGH. -- Carnegie Mellon University opened a showcase data center at its main Pittsburgh campus. Dubbed the Data Center Observatory, the facility serves as an operational data center and research lab studying energy consumption.

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On Tuesday, the school gave tours of the data center. Officials from Carnegie Mellon and West Kingston, R.I.-based American Power Conversion Corp. (APC), the major corporate partner for the project, gave speeches and presentations before opening the data center's doors. Members of IT shops, neighboring schools like Duquesne University and media were on hand for the official ribbon cutting.

Planning for the data center started three years ago. Engineering plans were completed in October of 2005, with construction finishing last month.

The data center is located in the university's Collaborative Innovation Center and has a window near the main entrance so students and visitors can see the room. It also has a monitor nearby showing measurement data, such as thermal graphs.

"This is basically a test bed," said University President Jared Cohon at the ribbon cutting. "The center will serve the university's data needs. We're also doing research at the same time. The idea of integrating research into the fabric of the university is what we do best."

The first of four scheduled APC InfrastruXure rack enclosures or "forts," as university officials call them, started running last month in the 2,000-square-foot room. The 295-square-foot rack enclosure that houses the servers is about 8 feet high, 10 feet wide and 30 feet long. It has 12 racks that can each accommodate about 40 units.

The enclosures use what APC calls In-Row cooling technology. The CRAC units suck in hot air from the enclosure, draw it over coils filled with chilled water and spew it out back out at about 72 degrees.

The enclosure has ceiling tiles that APC says seals in the hot air, which prevents it from mixing with air in the rest of the room and allows the air-conditioning units to do their thing.

"In-Row cooling is a very different form of cooling," said Ronald Seftick, vice president of APC's construction and facilities engineering group. "Everyone was trying to cool the room rather than the server, and so we're trying to get as close to the server as we can."

Right now, only five racks in the first enclosure are filled with servers, mainly research computers for different college departments, much of which was donated by companies like IBM, Intel Corp., Seagate Technology and Sun Microsystems Inc. University officials are already gathering data on the machines but will have a better picture once they install more servers there. The university hopes to move 100% of its research operations into the new data center.

The next three rack enclosures are scheduled to be installed in the next three years. Once finished, the four enclosures will be able to support 40 racks of servers that could use as much energy as 750 averagesized houses.

The enclosure is also strewn with dozens of monitors and sensors that connect to an adjacent 1,100-square-foot administrative lab. From there, university officials can see localized data about power consumption, temperature, humidity and fan speed, among other things. Their hope is to determine exactly what eats up power in the data center, so they can start realizing how to fix it and share their research with other data centers and corporate partners.

"It's not about making computers faster anymore," said Greg Ganger, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon. "It's about having them do what we want them to do at a reasonable cost."

Ganger, who is also director of the university's Parallel Data Lab, a storage systems research center, said power consumption has fast become one of the biggest issues data centers are facing.

The other? How employees are spending their time.

Ganger said that in visits to IT shops, he asked how much time employees were spending on particular tasks in the data center. Ganger said they got mostly blank stares. With the new data center, officials will be able to see how much time administrators spend on different tasks.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer

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