Vancouver Sun

A cool, green data-storing machine

Company’s North Vancouver building leans on green technology

- DERRICK PENNER

When Vancouver-based data-storage firm Global Relay was looking to build a greener server facility, its location, a stones throw from the waterfront in North Vancouver, was as important as any of its other leading-edge, energy-efficient features.

Built using the concept of freeair cooling, the $24-million, threestore­y building literally breathes the Pacific breezes blowing up Burrard Inlet through louvered vents on its south wall to cool the banks of server racks humming away inside. And it does so at less than one-tenth the cost of old-school air conditioni­ng.

“We realized we were in the perfect location to be able to build a pure (free-air cooled) centre,” said CEO and co-founder Warren Roy. “We didn’t need any air conditioni­ng whatsoever.”

That is a distinctio­n that matters to its customers, said Shannon Rogers, Global Relay’s president and general counsel.

“All companies are trying to figure out their green agenda,” Rogers said, including the big banks and financial institutio­ns that are core customers and a specialty for the firm.

“So it helps, when they choose a vendor with a green data centre, with their own initiative­s. It’s a side benefit, but the feedback we’re getting from everyone is excellent.”

The whole industry is grappling with how to make data more efficient as the sector falls into the Internet 2.0 era of big data.

Data centres are the digital warehouses that store the stuff of the Internet, from the content of websites and videos for streaming services such as Netflix, to the customer databases of online merchants and medical records.

That need for storage, however, is set to explode as systems are set up to collect the data generated from the sensors in smart appliances — like the refrigerat­or that tells you you’re running out of milk — or autonomous automobile­s.

Increasing the efficiency of data centres, and reducing their environmen­tal footprint, has been a decade-and-a-half long evolution, said John Weigelt, chief technology officer at Microsoft Canada.

“As we’ve gone from generation to generation, we’ve paid close attention to environmen­tal sustainabi­lity,” Weigelt said.

The data-storage industry uses a measuremen­t called power use efficiency to gauge its energy consumptio­n.

The assumption used to be that every watt of electricit­y used to run equipment generated an equivalent amount of heat, which required an additional watt’s worth of electricit­y to cool.

However, Weigelt said experience has taught operators that their computer servers can run at much wider temperatur­e tolerances than they first assumed — as high as 40 C at the top end — so much of the cooling they were doing was more for human sensibilit­ies than the needs of their equipment.

That has opened up the potential for less energy-intensive cooling options, such as free-air cooling, which Microsoft uses in its newer data centres based on self-contained modules they call IT Packs.

The packs look a little bit like shipping containers, but are fitted out with about 3,000 servers on racks that are surrounded by a sophistica­ted recirculat­ing air system.

Microsoft has even experiment­ed with putting data-storage units at the bottom of the sea off the coast of California, an initiative it calls Project Natick, where they are looking to exploit the constant, cool ocean temperatur­es with a vision of using renewable tide or wave-generated electricit­y to help power them.

“So we’re competing here to get to that one to zero (power use efficiency),” Weigelt said.

At Global Relay, the company is getting close using slightly less than one-tenth of its electricit­y load to cool its servers and keep the facility at a stable 18 C.

Roy said with its first installati­ons of equipment, the data centre is a $60-million investment for the company, which is paying off with operating costs that are about half of what it would have cost them to outsource data storage.

Its cooling is done mostly by drawing the ambient harbour air, at a rate of 5,380 cubic metres (190,000 cubic feet) per minute through giant air exchangers that first filter the air before it is circulated through the building.

If the air is too cold, the system draws in some waste heat to warm it up. If the outside temperatur­e is too hot — above about 24 C, an evaporativ­e water cooling system is put in use to cool it down.

Air coming in flows through a honeycomb-like layer of material, which, when needed, is soaked with water that evaporates and cools the air passing over it before flowing into the building.

However, Roy said they only have to use the evaporativ­e cooling system for the equivalent of about five to six weeks per year in its first couple of years of operation.

Racks of servers draw cool air in through the front of white-painted cabinets to cool the units. Warm air flows out into a “hot aisle” at the back, which is pulled into ceiling ducts to either be recirculat­ed when needed or exhausted to the outdoors.

“The entire building is a living, breathing building,” said company co-founder and chief operating officer Duff Reid. “Fans will run up or down, depending on the outside temperatur­e. We don’t have to do anything to make that happen, it just happens based on sensor data that we (collect).”

The whole idea was to make the centre’s design as simple as possible, Reid said, using simple components such as motors and pumps, but controlled by sophistica­ted, data-driven systems.

And that was for practical purposes in addition to reducing its environmen­tal impact. Reid said complex machinery introduces more risks of equipment failure that can lead to down time, which is something they can’t afford.

“The operating record of Global Relay’s centre is perfect,” Roy said. “It’s never gone down, and we attribute part of that to the simplicity of its design.”

The industry’s focus hasn’t been only on improving energy efficiency. The nature of data storage, moving from traditiona­l hard drives that rely on mechanical spinning discs to flash memory, has reduced energy demands.

Innovation­s are also being made to improve how data centres operate. Vancouver’s TSO Logic, for instance, works on systems to optimize data storage.

TSO Logic CEO Aaron Rallo said the company has done research on a group of centres that demonstrat­ed 30 per cent of servers “were doing nothing at all.”

 ?? PHOTOS: NICK PROCAYLO ?? Global Relay COO Duff Reid looks over the company’s data centre facility in North Vancouver. Global Relay has built its data centre to be carbon neutral, relying on a free-air cooling system, as opposed to air conditioni­ng, to manage the temperatur­e of...
PHOTOS: NICK PROCAYLO Global Relay COO Duff Reid looks over the company’s data centre facility in North Vancouver. Global Relay has built its data centre to be carbon neutral, relying on a free-air cooling system, as opposed to air conditioni­ng, to manage the temperatur­e of...
 ??  ?? Global Relay’s data centre cools itself at less than one-tenth the cost of old-school air conditioni­ng. The three-storey building in North Vancouver takes in breezes blowing up Burrard Inlet through vents in its south wall.
Global Relay’s data centre cools itself at less than one-tenth the cost of old-school air conditioni­ng. The three-storey building in North Vancouver takes in breezes blowing up Burrard Inlet through vents in its south wall.

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