HP opens first ever wind-cooled data center

The data center in north east England is the most energy-efficient one that HP has ever built

From the outside, Hewlett-Packard's newest data center looks like a massive, well-secured loading dock, devoid of logos and surrounded by a robust barbed-wired fence in a nondescript industrial park.

The low-profile approach is intentional, as HP's Wynyard center is intended to hold the most valuable asset for many companies: their data. HP will use the data center to compete with companies such as IBM for IT services and management contracts, a growing source of revenue that requires secure data centers.

HP is hoping several of the environmentally friendly design features of the 360,000-square-foot Wynyard facility will push it ahead. It is HP's most energy efficient data center that it has built, said Maurice Julian, U.K. facilities project director. Half of the facility is now complete, comprising four data halls, with room to create four more data halls as demand dictates.

The data center was originally started by IT outsourcer EDS, which was then acquired by HP for US$13.9 billion in May 2008. The building sits in a blustery and chilly area about eight miles west of the North Sea in the northeast of England. It is entirely air-cooled: HP has built eight 2.1-meter stainless steel and plastic intake fans to draw cool air.

The air runs through a massive bank of modular filters to remove dust and other contaminants before it circulates in a massive cavity, called a plenum, below its data center halls.

The air is forced up though the floor and runs over the front of server racks before being exhausted. The system keeps the hall at a constant 24C (75.2F). When it is cold outside, some of the exhausted heat is recirculated with the outside air to maintain the right temperature.

In Billingham, the outside temperature only rises above 24C for about 20 hours a year, but the facility still needed traditional chillers for those occasions, Julian said. To run a closed system, data center operators can close the louvers that let in outside air.

"It's an ideal climate for this type of solution," Julian said. "We're moving large volumes of air at a low speed."

Installing chillers in addition to building the natural air cooling added about 6 percent to the cost of building the data center, Julian said. The extra cost should be recouped in as few as two years due to the power savings.

Power is one of the highest costs for a data center. A facility's efficiency is measured in PUE, or Power Usage Effectiveness, which is a ratio that compares the total power used by a facility to the power used by its equipment.

Running at a full load, HP has calculated that the Wynyard facility has a 1.2 PUE, meaning that for every 1.2 watt of electricity used to power IT equipment, 1 watt is used for cooling and other facility needs. That makes it HP's most efficient data center.

Julian said each of the four data halls actually have a 1.16 PUE on their own, but that increases slightly to take into account electricity consumption in other areas, such as the 20,000-square foot office facilities.

PUEs have been falling as companies such as Google, Microsoft and IBM have sought ways to reduce costs, by locating data centers near cheaper power suppliers and employing more efficient cooling techniques. A short time ago, data centers had PUEs of 2.0 or higher, but new custom-built ones are routinely hitting 1.5 or below, the mark for an energy-efficient site.

Assuming HP pays between 10 to 11 pence per megawatt hour, using outside air over chillers should save HP up to £2.6 million ($4.16 million) in power annually, Julian said.

The facility is also harvesting rainwater. In the winter, the outside humidity can drop, and the data center should be kept between 40 percent to 60 percent humidity, said John Finlayson, Wynyard data center manager.

Rainwater, which is filtered, is stored in 80,000-liter tanks. If the outside air is too dry, the filtered water is sprayed in a fine mist to bring the humidity up before the air passes into the data halls.

Inside the data hall, HP has opted to put in light-colored server racks, Finlayson said. Since lighter colors reflect, HP found data halls required 40 percent less lighting if the cabinets were not painted black.

Like other data centers, Wynyard has been built to ensure everything runs even if the power goes out. It has tens of thousands of batteries on hand to provide an uninterrupted power supply, which are then relieved by up to 10 diesel generators supplied by four 85,000-liter underground fuel tanks. The facility could run up to four days on those reserves.

Security is tight. Access cards and biometric details are needed to access halls. Server cabinets are locked, and the keys are only released if the particular engineer has permission encoded on an access card. The entry system to the data halls prevents two people from entering at the same time. The data center also has a high perimeter fence, reinforced walls and constant security.

From the outside, no one would guess what actually goes on in the building, and that's intentional. For example, "we tried to make the air intakes blend in with the facade of the building," Finlayson said.

The Wynyard data center went live last weekend with its first clients in its fourth hall. HP opened up the hall to journalists on Tuesday, but no photos were allowed. Several workers crawled on top of server cabinets, finishing off cabling tasks.

The data center is designed to serve clients that are purchasing IT services from HP, but it is hardware agnostic, and equipment from vendors such as Sun Microsystems and EMC could be seen. Overall, HP is pushing its services business, which emphasizes allowing companies to get applications up and running faster and being able to modify those services quickly and with a heavy emphasis on virtualization technology.

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