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12 green data centers worth emulating, from Apple to Verne

Could your company's growth aspirations be held back by its inability to plan for power-hungry data center infrastructure?

Close to 60 percent of IT decision makers believe that the state of their data center power, cooling or space is "fair, serious or urgent," reports research from April by technology trade publication InformationWeek. In other words, they could run out of capacity by the end of 2014.

Twenty-two percent of the 100 executives surveyed said they regularly track energy usage in their data centers. However, in the online survey, "The State of Data Center Evolution," only 15 percent monitor these key performance indicators hourly or daily. And almost 42 percent never or seldom track energy efficiency.

The good news is that companies across cloud computing and Web services -- including Google, Facebook, Apple and eBay – are fast at work developing the sorts of benchmark data and operational models necessary to reverse this apathy. And to serve as models for other companies with big data center operations.

For example, the Cloud Energy and Emission Research (CLEER) framework developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Northwestern University highlights the implications of moving corporate applications out of on-premises data centers and into public cloud infrastructure, which are often planned and built with optimal energy-efficiency in mind.

eBay has also raised the bar by with its Digital Service Efficiency (DSE) methodology, which links how many "buy" or "sell" business transactions are completed per kilowatt-hour of electricity.

More recently, Adobe, eBay, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Salesforce.com and Symantec have come together as part of the Future of Internet Power initiative, which will showcase best practices related to low-carbon power sourcing. IBM is heavily into promoting green data center design: the European Commission honored 27 of them in January 2012.

Since seeing is believing, however, we've hunted down 12 specific examples of data centers and co-location facilities that deserve kudos for energy-efficient design, cooling policies and green-than-usual energy sourcing. Are there others? Probably, but the solutions we're presented are particularly innovative. May their choices inspire your company's own IT infrastructure strategy.

1. Verne Global (Keflavik, Iceland)

Home to automaker BMW Group and business development organization Climate Action, the Verne Global campus is powered by two renewable power sources (geothermal and hydroelectric) and boasts status as the first zero-carbon data center. Its focus is on supporting high-performance computing (HPC) applications, which is a big deal because the high-density systems require plenty of electricity (for both the transactions and to keep the infrastructure cool). BMW is using the site for crash simulations, aerodynamic calculations and other computer-aided design (CAD) purposes. By moving 10 of its HPC clusters to Iceland from Germany, BMW hopes to reduce annual carbon emissions by 3,570 metric tons.

2. Facebook (Lulea, Sweden)

Located near the Artic Circle, the social network giant's latest data center uses chilly Nordic air alongside traditional water-cooling techniques to keep from overheating. The locally generated hydroelectricity is so reliable, that Facebook said it has been able to reduce the number of backup generators required at the site by 70 percent. The server hardware is based on Open Compute Project designs. The overall Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) is 1.07. PUE measures the amount of cooling power needed versus the amount of electricity to run the IT infrastructure. An ideal ratio is 1.0.

3. Apple (Maiden, North Carolina)

Breaking somewhat with its policy of super-secrecy, Apple has committed publicly to powering its facilities with renewable energy including solar, wind, hydro and geothermal resources. Its data center in Maiden, N.C., which powers some of the company's cloud services, "exemplifies" this approach. For starters, it seems to be the largest LEED Platinum facility of its type. The property already boasts a 100-acre, 20-megawatt on-site solar array that is capable of generating an estimated 42 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually – and its twin should be operational on nearby land by the end of this year. Other design features include a chilled water energy storage system along with free outside air cooling, enabling its chillers to be shut off more than 75 percent of the time; and high-efficiency LED lighting teamed with motion sensors. Apple is hard at work on green data centers in Nevada and Oregon.

4. Google (Hamina, Finland)

Generally speaking, Google's data centers are configured to use 50 percent less power than comparable facilities, operating at an average PUE of 1.14. It is notable that the company also recycles 100 percent of the electronics equipment that it replaces; in June 2013, the Green Grid announced an initiative to step up data center e-waste management. Google's facility in Hamina, Finland, was the first to use seawater cooling, making it one of the most advanced in the fleet. The site was constructed in a 60-year-old converted paper mill.

5. eBay (Phoenix, Arizona; and South Jordan, Utah)

The so-called "Project Mercury" in Arizona is notable for its use of year-round free cooling for its computing equipment, even at desert temperatures that can reach 119 degrees. The e-commerce giant achieved this by limiting the server configurations to just a couple of highly energy efficient models that are part of a modular design. But its flagship "Topaz" data center in Utah holds even greener credentials: It was awarded LEED Gold status in 2010. Since then, the company has added a massive 665-kW soar array on its roof, featuring 72,000 square feet of panels and capable of producing 924,013 kWh of electrically per year. Between that investment, along with additional solar and fuel cell installations, eBay is now powering about 11 percent of its total U.S. data center electricity demand with renewable energy.

6. GE (Louisville, Kentucky)

Even if Apple's LEED Platinum data center is bigger, GE got there earlier with the operation at its headquarters. The $48 million project is rated 34 percent more energy-efficient than comparable operations, even though it has about four times the computing capacity per square foot. (GE didn't disclose the size of the facility.) GE earned the rating by using the "skin, bones and shell" of an existing building. The facility uses ultra low-flow fixtures that help reduce water component by 42 percent. The design includes a four-foot raised floor cooled by two 500-ton redundant chillers and two 27,000-gallon thermal storage tanks.

7. Citi (Frankfurt, Germany)

Now about four years old, the financial services giant's 230,000-square-foot data center in Germany was apparently the first to earn the LEED Platinum rating. The site was constructed to use just 30 percent of the power that would be required for a comparable data center, and it literally has a green roof: vegetation covers about 72 percent of it, absorbing water and helping keep the building's temperature more consistent throughout the year. The data center is able to use outside air for cooling about 63 percent of the time, and it uses reverse osmosis water treatment to save about 13 million gallons of water annually.

8. Hewlett-Packard (Wynard, United Kingdom)

Wind is the big story at HP's facility in northern England, which opened in 2010. The site takes advantage of the cool air from the North Sea to keep the IT equipment from overheating and collects rain from the rooftop, to use for humidification purposes. The walls and server racks were painted white in order to reduce the need for lighting. The energy powering Wynard is wind-sourced. Aside from using 40 percent less energy than a comparable facility, the site produces about half the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to HP.

9. Microsoft (Cheyenne, Wyoming)

Like pretty much every other high-tech giant, Microsoft is dedicating plenty of money and research to energy-efficient data center design principles. But its project in Wyoming is a departure: it is working with fuel cell technology provider FuelCell Energy to test the use of sewage (biogas actually) from a wastewater treatment facility as a power source. AT&T, eBay and others are also using fuel cells as clean alternative energy for their data centers.

10. BendBroadband (Bend, Oregon)

One of just seven U.S. co-location facilities to earn the Environment Protection Agency's highest Energy Star ratings, the Vault boasts PUE of 1.1. The 30,000-square-foot LEED Gold certified data center includes a 900-kilowatt (kW) Kyoto passive heat rejection system, which requires no water. (It's the biggest such installation in the United States.) A 152-kW solar array powers all of the facilities non-IT equipment, and smart LED lighting is automated with daylight harvesting sensors. There aren't any tradition co-location "cages" in the Vault; instead, the site uses Performance-Optimized Data Center (POD) containers.

11. Green Mountain (Stavanger, Norway)

This Norwegian company doesn't mince words: Its Web site claims status as the "greenest data center in the world." Built in an unused NATO facility, the site is nestled into a mountain and uses the nearby fjord for seawater-based free cooling. It uses low-cost, locally generated hydroelectricity to keep prices down. Its PUE is 1.2 and its Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE), a similar metric, is essentially zero.

12. Datadock (Strasbourg, France)

The energy-efficiency measures incorporated within this centrally located European facility – which claims to be the continent's greenest option -- are helping save more than 26 million kWh of electricity per year, at full load. The site consumes 25 percent less power than an average facility, clocking a PUE metric of 1.21. It uses geothermal power for the cooling systems, pumped from the rich groundwater resources near its location. 

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