Powering data centers is always a headache but a Massachusetts team has decided to tackle the even bigger problem of using solar energy for this task. The challenge is to work out how to generate sufficient power during the day to keep the hardware running while storing sufficient energy to last through the night.

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) have started a project that aims to produce a prototype micro data center. The ground-breaking project has been named the Massachusetts Net-Zero Datacenter, or MassNZ.

Chris Hill, MIT
Chris Hill, MIT

Servers without the environmental impact

The project was launched at MGHPCC’s base in Holyoke, about 160km (100 miles) inland from Boston. The container covers 18.5 square meters (200sq ft) and the ultimate goal is to see how solar could help power a data center containing thousands of computers that are “voracious users of energy”.

The 3,000 sq ft of solar panels adjacent to the container will be connected to UPS batteries and micro-flywheels for energy storage, along with computer servers, storage and network systems. Temperature will be controlled using a free cooling system. The unit is connected to a conventional electricity supply but researchers hope to reduce the reliance on this substantially as the first phase of this project progresses.

Christopher Hill, a principal research engineer at MIT and graduate of Imperial College, London, said, “There are three major obstacles to research in sustainable datacenter design: availability of experimental infrastructure to enable realistic prototyping and evaluation, availability of realistic use-cases from a state-of-the-art green datacenter, and real-time visibility into the utility infrastructure that provides datacenter power. The MassNZ addresses all three.”

Current renewable energy projects solve the problems of unreliable power supply by supplementing, not replacing, the power supply using a combination of renewable generation and energy storage; by investing in renewable energy generation for the same grid that feeds the datacenter; or by buying Renewable Energy Credits equivalent to some or all energy a datacenter consumes.

Despite these developments and numerous datacenter design advances to reduce power consumption, there are still unaddressed challenges to be met through the project. Prashant Shenoy, computer science professor at UMass, wants to answer questions such as:

  • How should a datacenter incorporate renewable sources of energy?
  • How should future datacenters interface with a smart electric grid to intelligently reduce their electricity bills?
  • How should we design green high-performance computing applications that intelligently manage power use?

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