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Sun’s Grab Bag of Greener Datacenter Solutions

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MENLO PARK, CALIF. – It’s time to raise the raised floors and get serious about energy savings in the datacenter. That was one of the messages Subodh Bapat, a distinguished engineer and vice president of eco-responsibility at Sun, gave here Thursday during an open house for its Sun Labs group.

With growing energy costs, space constraints and growing computer processing and storage needs, large companies are under more pressure than ever to save money and keep IT operations efficient. Bapat noted, for example, that the social network Facebook’s datacenter is growing at a rate of about three percent per week.

While most companies may not have the happy problem of Facebook’s runaway growth, they still have to deal with energy constraints and costs. Bapat detailed a number of suggestions Sun has itself implemented as well as its customers and partners.

One overlooked item is the well-established raised floor that serves as the base of many datacenter operations. “It turns out these are very expensive, costing several millions of dollars and people don’t keep track of what’s happening underneath,” said Bapat.

He’s looked himself and it’s often not pretty. In addition to fast food boxes and other trash, Bapat said the jumble of cables and conduits are often laid out at different angles that can impede airflow. “It’s very inefficient,” he said.

Nathan Brookwood, research fellow with Insight64, agrees. “There’s no security in a raised floor and it’s a pain to manage because people lose track of what’s down there,” he said. And the idea of using the floor to distribute chilled air is full of problems. He noted, for example, tiles are sometimes left off to deal with a problem under the floor.

Sun’s solution is to replace the raised floor with a concrete slab and move all the wiring and power conduits above it where it’s more accessible. Brookwood said he’s also heard of another approach where some companies have built a kind of multi-story datacenter with the cabling and plumbing in the basement.

Bapat listed a number of other ideas. “Air side economizers” have proven to be effective in Iceland and even San Francisco on chilly afternoons. “It’s just a fancy name for opening the windows,” said Bapat, to laughs from the audience. The idea is to take advantage of the colder air outside and cut down on the air conditioning.

Sun is also working on the idea of “power managed states,” where IT can better optimize energy use. Bapat gave an example of IT being able to regulate a 1-kilowatt server to only burn, say, 500 watts over a six-hour period to save energy. Another idea, he said customers have asked for is being able to safely turn some servers off at night or other periods when utilization is low.

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