IBM, Microsoft boast breakthroughs in quest for greener cloud

IBM, Microsoft boast breakthroughs in quest for greener cloud

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To what lengths will cloud computing services companies go to position their infrastructure as the most energy-efficient or least destructive for the environment?

New innovations disclosed during the past week by two contenders in this regard -- IBM and Microsoft – offer a hint of what's in store for companies hoping to "green" their IT infrastructure, and in particular the footprint related to their data centers.

IBM embraces environmental ratings

First, IBM's legendary research and development (R&D) division has patented a technique for "environmentally sustainable computing" that lets companies reroute cloud data center workloads based on parameters such as where they will consume the least amount of electricity or where they might be processed on servers that are running off energy generated by wind or solar projects.

The approach identifies network nodes that are available to perform a task and assigns an "environmental impact rating" based both on how much power that infrastructure uses and the lifecycle materials concerns for the equipment involved (including whether the technology can be recycled easily).

Master inventor Keith Walker -- co-inventor on the patent -- described the approach as akin to being able to add a "green button" to computational requirements. In the future, businesses would be able to adopt cloud services that can better balance transaction performance requirements (how fast something needs to happen) with some sort of environmental rating. Or, they might be able to set routing parameters that dictate when energy considerations are given priority.

To be clear, IBM isn't saying that it offers cloud services that already take this into account. It is saying simply that this option now can be layered into cloud services. Now, it has the power to license this approach to organizations hoping to create green cloud services or to benefit from them. So, stay tuned for another marketing differentiator.

"Patents in general are important for teaching the world how to do something," Walker said.

Microsoft embeds green power sources into data centers

Microsoft isn't claiming a patent for its innovation, but it could have dramatic implications for data center design -- especially as it potentially could be used to help improve the energy efficiency of existing centers.

The Microsoft Global Foundation Services team (the one that designs the company's cloud computing resources and its internal data centers) is testing a way to add small fuel cells directly into server equipment racks.

"The main distinction between this data plant concept and previous architecture ideas is the notion of bringing the power plant inside the data center, instead of putting the data center in the power plant," writes Sean James, senior research program manager, Microsoft Global Foundation Services. "A lot of energy is lost in today's data center energy supply chain."

According to Microsoft, this design approach offers the following benefits:

Higher power availability, because it confines the failure potential to a single piece of infrastructure. By using virtualization, the load could be transferred to other servers, reducing downtime.

Reduced infrastructure costs, because certain electrical distribution and back-up resources could be eliminated.

Better power usage effectiveness (PUE) ration, which results in less power needed for cooling and conditioning equipment.

Where might this approach be appropriate? Microsoft believes the design can be mass produced and deployed in areas of the world that have access to methane resources. The process converts the chemical energy into direct current power, which only has to be sent a matter of feet to the server power supply. A much higher percentage of the energy actually can be used by the server hardware. Microsoft figures this design is twice as efficient as what it used traditionally.

Like the IBM development, this design isn't readily available today. But Microsoft plans future exploration of the idea.

"With the potential to double the efficiency of traditional data centers, we see tremendous potential in this approach, but this concept is not without challenges," James writes. "Deep technical issues remain, such as thermal cycling, fuel distribution systems, cell conductivity, power management, and safety training that needs to be further researched and solutions developed. But we are excited about working to resolve these challenges."

Microsoft photo by Peteri via Shutterstock