Interview

Sustainability in the Data Center Part II

The conclusion of a discussion with Notre Dame CIO Gordon Wishon

Campus Technology: We left our last discussion with your explanation of not only reducing growth of the number of physical servers on your data center floor though virtualization, but also achieving some real net savings over time. Do you also have plans for using cloud services towards similar ends?

Gordon Wishon: In the longer term--and I know some institutions are already heading in this direction--rather than achieving our net savings through virtualization, we'll begin to promote and rely upon, increasingly, cloud solutions, or if you will, outsourced solutions that take advantage of much greater economies of scale. I happened to be talking to my counterpart at Arizona State recently, Adrian Sannier, and ASU is in fact hoping to reduce the need for a data center, or perhaps eliminate the need for a data center on campus altogether in the future, by leveraging the cloud and cloud providers, especially of commodity services such as cycles and storage. Companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, EVault, and others are able to take advantage of economies of scale and ultimately reduce the demand for net power consumption and cooling requirements.

CT: Are there other strategies similar to virtualization you can leverage within the data center?

Wishon: Another opportunity in the data center is the use of such technologies as Oracle RAC, which, while it's not initially reducing costs or environmental impact, we believe that over ten years, because it's a much more scalable and manageable architecture, it will significantly reduce the cost of ownership, just from reduced maintenance costs and higher availability. It will also help us to avoid adding more platforms in our storage environment, and in our database environment. So, that's very similar to the way that virtualization is allowing us to avoid adding additional hardware in the data center.

CT: What are some examples of what you're doing to reduce environmental impact?

Wishon: One thing that we've received public interest about is an effort where we're looking at ways to recapture waste heat. Historically, of course, the heat generated by computing platforms and servers in our data centers has really just been exhausted to the atmosphere; thrown away. As server platforms are growing in use of blades and tacking more chips and processing power into the same space, that's actually generating not only increased power consumption and cooling requirements, it's also generating additional heat. If we could find a way to capture waste heat, perhaps recycle it in some way, then once again we'd have a method of reducing the environmental impact and reducing our carbon footprint.

CT: Do you have any examples of this that are working now?

Wishon: We have a couple of successful initiatives that have been coordinated and were the brainchild of our Chief Technology Officer Dewitt Latimer and a scientist in our Center for Research Computing, Paul Brenner, who have helped the City of South Bend to reduce some of the energy requirements that they face, by recycling some of the waste heat.

In the first example, the city runs an arboretum/greenhouse facility that contains a display of southwestern American flora that was a donation from a biologist here at Notre Dame a number of years ago. The winters in South Bend are particularly difficult, and the city was finding it increasingly difficult to heat that greenhouse display facility through the long winters in South Bend, especially in the face of rising energy costs. So, since we have collaborated with the city to build out a metropolitan area network, it turns out that arboretum facility sits within close proximity of some fiber that connects the university to parts of the city. We were able to simply take a rack of high performance computing equipment, particularly dense computers that generated a lot of waste heat, and sit it right down in the greenhouse facility. So what was waste heat is now being used to help heat that greenhouse facility. That not only lowers the heating costs for the city of South Bend to heat the greenhouse, it also allows us to move that rack off of our data center floor, so we don't have the burden of cooling that particular suite of equipment.

We're looking at other ways to leverage this notion. We have another pilot project now with the City of South Bend and their sewage treatment facility. It's another project being coordinated by Dewitt Latimer. Sewage treatment facilities try to raise the temperature of solid waste material to a certain point in order to generate bacterial activity that breaks the waste down into byproducts, one of which can be fertilizer. So, rather than hauling the material away to the landfill, the treatment facility can generate a revenue source--provided they are able to raise the temperatures long enough and to the right levels to produce useful fertilizer. So we are engaged in an effort to capture waste heat from the data center, direct it over to the sewage treatment facility, and help the city to solve the waste treatment problem and offset some of its costs.

CT: It seems like IT's role is not only changing within the university, it's changing within the community as well. And you must be gaining attention and support for these environmental initiatives, both on and off campus.

Wishon: As we go forward, we're going to focus on awareness and education as well as our technology initiatives. I think we can all do much better than we have done in the past in addressing environmental concerns and our impact on the environment.

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