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Cool Data

October 4, 2010

I was born in Upstate New York, and I lived there for my first twenty-five years. One objective measure of whether you're living in Downstate New York, near New York City, or Upstate, is the density of cows (as one of my brothers pointed out); and also bears. In the era before cable television and video games, a common upstate recreation was to drive at dusk to the local garbage dump to watch the bears scavenge for food. Cows and bears aside, there's one word that characterizes Upstate New York - Cold! Yahoo is putting this accident of Nature to good use by locating a server farm in Lockport, New York, thirty miles north of Buffalo and downwind of frigid Lake Ontario. Not only that, but the center's power is renewable hydroelectric, since it comes from the nearby Niagara River generating plant.

Yahoo's server building design is somewhat like a commercial chicken coop, another common upstate structure. These long, narrow buildings allow a nice airflow, so outside air is brought in for cooling. When outside air is not sufficient, evaporative cooling will be used, rather than refrigerants. Yahoo was aided in its venture by a $9.9 million sustainability grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, since the design requires just 1% of its total electrical demand for cooling. This data center will consume 40% less energy and 95% less water than other data centers. Its power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratio is 1.08, meaning only eight percent of the power is used for all non-computing tasks.[5] Data doesn't come cheap. The US Environmental Protection Agency says that US data centers consumed about 61 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2006 at a cost of $4.5 billion. This will increase to an estimated 100 billion kilowatt-hours in 2011, at a $7.4 billion cost. Most data centers use only half of their power on computing.[5] Yahoo isn't the only company with an eye towards Lake Ontario data centers. Verizon Communications is considering Somerset, New York, as a data center location.[6] Somerset is only twenty miles from Yahoo's Lockport site.

Locating data centers in cold climates near a source of renewable energy isn't unique with these ventures. Iceland has for years advertised itself as an ideal data center location.[7] The cold climate is well known, but lesser known is Iceland's plentiful geothermal energy; lesser known, until the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano earlier this year.[8] Renewable energy translates to a smaller carbon footprint. Thousands of servers equate to thousands of metric tons of carbon annually.[7] Icelandic servers, of course, need to be connected to the rest of the world, so fiberoptic cables with five terabit/sec capacity are being laid.[7] Latency is still a problem, so Icelandic servers may be alright for Europe, but not for the US. Opera Software, provider of a popular web browser, is the first customer of a data center in Hafnarfjorour, near Reykjavík.[9]

Google is possibly the owner of the greatest number of servers, and it's been in the forefront of server center power reduction, even to the point of running its servers at a higher temperature than usually considered reasonable.[10] Power reduction is an important concern for Google. It's been reported that Google's huge data center in Oregon might need more than a hundred megawatts of power to run.[11] That's impressive, especially since Google's servers use only half the usual power.[12] According to Google, a Google search requires just 0.0003 kilowatt-hour, but even that small bit of energy leaves a carbon footprint of 0.2 grams of CO2.[12] Google has a data center in Belgium that was built without chillers. Instead, it uses cool water from a nearby canal. It does get too hot on some days for this cooling scheme to work. When that happens, Google shuts down the center and shifts traffic to other centers.[13] Google has published its five-step plan for energy management, as follows:[12]
1. Minimize electricity used by servers.
2. Reduce the energy used by the data center facilities themselves.
3. Conserve precious fresh water by using recycled water instead.
4. Reuse or recycle all electronic equipment that leaves their data centers.
5. Engage with peers to advance smarter energy practices.

Outhouse photograph

Reading Room.

Of course, putting your data centers in backwoods areas does have its downside. The overhead fiberoptic cables for Google's Oregon data center were regularly shot by hunters until they were placed underground.[14] A Luddite backlash? Probably just backwoods boredom.


  1. Yahoo opens data center in NY, will employ 100, Utica Observer-Dispatch, September 20, 2010.
  2. Yahoo opens data center in NY, will employ 100, Forbes, September 20, 2010.
  3. Leon Kaye, "Yahoo Scores a Coop with Green Data Center Opening," Triplepundit.com, September 20, 2010.
  4. Daniel Robison, "Yahoo Readies Data Center," WNED Public Broadcasting, September 2, 2010.
  5. Matthew Wheeland, "Yahoo Spreads its Wings with 'Chicken Coop' Data Center," Reuters - Greener World Media, September 20, 2010.
  6. Rich Miller, "Verizon Eyes NY State for Major Data Center," Datacenterknowledge.com, September 20, 2010.
  7. Simon Hancock, "Iceland looks to serve the world," BBC News, October 9, 2009.
  8. Rich Miller, "Iceland, Volcanoes and Data Centers," Datacenterknowledge.com, April 15, 2010.
  9. John Oram, "Too Cool! Opera opens eco-friendly data center in Iceland," Techeye.com, May 23, 2010.
  10. Stephen Shankland, "Google uncloaks once-secret server," CNET.com, April 1, 2009.
  11. Matthew Wheeland, "Google Data Center's Massive Energy Appetite," Greenbiz.com, May 4, 2009.
  12. Google - Efficient Computing. Introduction - Sustainable Operations
  13. Arthur Cole, "Cooling a More Mature Green Data Center," ITBusinessedge.com, August 10, 2009.
  14. Ry Crozier, "US hunters shoot down Google fibre," ITNews.com, September 21, 2010.

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