The worst place ever to drop your laptop...but good for massive data centres

By Dan O’Sullivan

PC Towers. Row, upon row, upon row, upon row of them, stretching as far – if not farther – than the eye can see; an endless line of computers, flashing lights and wires that process unimaginable volumes of information per second, tirelessly whirring away. This isn’t a futuristic, space age description of something akin to the SkyNet severs seen in the Terminator films, but very much a reality.

Such centres exist, consuming unbelievable masses of energy to maintain the systems that they run, and in doing so make an ever increasing contribution to the planet’s CO2 emissions. With our demands of the internet showing no signs of dwindling, how do we cope with the growing need for these super-sized data centres, whilst at the same time looking to promote cleaner, more renewable energy?

Facebook’s latest centre is rumoured to be the size of eleven football pitches – a huge 30,000 square metres – and the pressing issue is how to keep such a mammoth mountain of computers cool. We’ve all lifted up our laptops after an hour or two’s worth of use and near on burned off our finger prints due to the fire that seems to be raging inside the casing, so imagine the energy needed to power the fans that prevent thousands of these servers from going up in smoke.

Indeed, conventional cooling methods can account for up to 70% of a data centre’s energy consumption, so the potential for savings is massive if we can find cleaner ways to go about the process. Fortunately, the solution might be closer than we’d first think.

Prompted by the financial and environmental benefits, some of the world’s biggest companies are looking to renewable energy resources to help cool their data centres and satisfy our insatiable desire for social networking, photo tagging and celebrity stalking. The good thing about Facebook’s new computer mansion is that it’s being built near the Arctic Circle – Northern Sweden, to be exact – where the ice cold climate will allow the use of outside air to cool the facilities for around 10 months of the year.

Rather than plugging in the fans and relying on them to stop the servers from launching the next Apollo mission, workers will simply have to open the windows and let the Arctic chill do the work . . . Ok, so it might not be quite as easy as that, but this move appears to be a winner for everyone.

Facebook saves money, CO2 emissions are greatly reduced and northern Europe expects to see a growing demand from big companies looking to install more energy efficient data centres. However, Facebook isn’t the only internet giant aiming to employ the environment to keep its systems clean.

Google, Microsoft and Yahoo already use the cheap hydroelectric power available in the Pacific Northwest to maintain their data centres, and Apple is supposedly setting about constructing a huge solar farm to power one of its dirtiest data centres in Maiden, North Carolina, as part of a bid to clean up its act. Indeed, Apple seems to be very much on the case of reducing emissions, with its website detailing the areas where it is looking to tackle its carbon footprint, and even offering an App that allows us to calculate the carbon contributions made by our car usage.

In short, this turn towards cheaper, cleaner and renewable technology from some of the world’s leading companies signifies a step in the right direction – one that drives down energy costs and does the environment a favour in the process. Should the financial benefits play out as expected, many others could be expected to follow suit in the not too distant future.

And while you may not have I.T. capacity on the sort of scale mentioned here, there’s computing tips aplenty on our website.