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Yahoo opens 'chicken coop' green data center

Yahoo is opening a data center in upstate New York that uses a radical new design to reduce energy costs by 40 percent, the company said Monday.

The data center in Lockport, near Niagara Falls, is cooled almost entirely by outside air that blows through the long data center halls to keep server equipment cool.

That means the data center doesn’t need a chiller to provide cold water for cooling, avoiding one of the most energy-intensive pieces of equipment in a traditional data center.

The IT gear will be run primarily by hydroelectric power from the local utility, New York Power Authority. Yahoo says it’s the most eco-friendly data center it has built.

There are three data center halls attached to a central operations center, with two more halls being built. The halls are angled toward the wind and are long and narrow to let air flow easily through them. They are shaped a bit like giant chicken coops, hence the name of the design: the Yahoo Computing Coop.

CEO Carol Bartz will open the data center at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday morning along with New York Governor David Patterson and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer.

Their attendance shows how important data centers have become. The U.S. Department of Energy gave Yahoo a $9.9 million grant toward the cost of the facility. The DOE wants to encourage better energy practices in data centers, which account for a growing proportion of U.S. energy use—the figure was 1.5 percent four years ago and has likely risen since then.

“For the past 60 years data centers were always this niche area that didn’t evolve very much, they were pretty expensive and slow to build. This represents a major shift of turning the data center into a highly efficient data factory,” said Scott Noteboom, Yahoo’s vice president for data center engineering and operations

Yahoo is also opening an operations center in New York state and says it will create 125 full-time jobs.

Despite the reduced environmental impact, Yahoo’s motives aren’t all altruistic. By building a data center that uses only 10 percent of its power for cooling—versus half in some other data centers—Yahoo can slash its electricity bills dramatically.

It also steps up the competition with Google and Microsoft, which have been trying to outdo each other with more efficient designs. Yahoo said its data center has a PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) of 1.08, compared to a national average of about 1.9.

The PUE shows how much of the total energy to the facility goes directly to the IT equipment, versus other uses like cooling. A PUE of 2.0 means only half of the energy is powering the IT gear, and a PUE of 1.0 would mean all of it is.

The design is similar to one that Hewlett-Packard started building recently for large customers. Yahoo has applied for patents for its design, related to the layout and how air is circulated in the halls. “There’s a lot of people chasing patents” in data center design, Noteboom said.

Facilities like HP’s and Yahoo”s are faster to build than traditional data centers. They’re built from factory-made parts that are assembled on site. Yahoo expects to complete two additional halls at the Lockport facility in six months, compared to 12 to 18 months for a traditional data center, Noteboom said.

That will bring the total floor space to about 36,000 square feet, or enough to house 50,000 servers. The site could eventually support 100,000 severs with additional halls added, Noteboom said.

The data center will run Yahoo services like Mail, Messenger and Flickr.

The facility cost less to build than a traditional data center, said Christina Page, director of Yahoo’s energy and climate strategy. “There’s an assumption that green costs more to build, but a lot of those assumptions aren’t always correct,” she said.

The servers inside are “off the shelf” products housed in standard racks, but Yahoo is also experimenting with its own server designs. On days when the weather is too hot for fresh-air cooling, the data center will use an evaporative cooling system. “We can use fresh air the vast majority of the year,” Noteboom said.

Yahoo wouldn’t say how much it is paying for the hydro power but Page said it’s wrong to assume that renewable energy always cost more than power from coal-fired plants.

The design allows the temperature and airflow inside to be closely controlled, like a data center in a shipping container but on a larger scale. “To me the Yahoo Computing Coop is just a bigger container,” Noteboom said.

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