Exploring data center design innovations
by Mirko Zorz - Editor in Chief - Tuesday, 18 December 2012.
Douglas Alger is Cisco’s IT Architect for Physical Infrastructure. He develops architecture roadmaps, solutions and policies for the physical infrastructure of the company’s data centers and other critical facilities around the world. He has participated in more than 80 major data center projects, from all-new construction to substantially retrofitting existing facilities.

In this interview Alger discusses modern data center innovations, the evolution of the data center in the past decade, his latest book - The Art of the Data Center, offers a variety of tips and insight into the future of data center design.

You’ve been to many modern data centers. Which one impressed you the most? Why?

I think each of the facilities The Art of the Data Center are compelling – a site had to be innovative for me to include it in the book. Although the rooms differ from one another, they have one thing in common that’s impressive – they were built in a very purposeful way. The designers and operators had specific ideas about what they want to accomplish with their data centers and they used innovative approaches to do so.

Yahoo designed a computing environment to be cooled without use of mechanical refrigeration, for instance, while eBay designed a data center that shifts from energy efficient to high performance to energy efficient again as customer demand rises and falls. Meanwhile, AISO (Affordable Internet Services Online) built a hosting facility that runs entirely on solar power. Each is impressive, and each is executing on a well-defined vision.

If I have to call out just one facility, it has to be Bahnhof’s data center in Stockholm because it gave me the idea for The Art of the Data Center. I was researching geothermal cooling and underground computer rooms for another book I was writing, Grow a Greener Data Center, and came upon images of the Bahnhof facility. The data center is built in an abandoned, underground nuclear bunker. Its look was inspired by 1970s science fiction movies such as Silent Running and the site has interesting features including artificial waterfalls, a huge aquarium and submarine engines that provide standby power.

After seeing the room, I knew it would be fascinating to speak with the designers and learn what prompted them to build the room how they did.

How has data center design evolved in the past decade?

Data centers today are being asked to do more than before: be more efficient, support more power and cooling density, and foster more productivity – all while providing high availability. The trend began in the early 2000s, when hardware models got smaller and more powerful.

Data center managers could suddenly fit a lot more computing into a given footprint and a server environment’s most critical resource became electrical capacity rather than rack space. Aside from increasing the demand put on data center physical infrastructure, this densification drove up utility bills. Power consumption is now the greatest operational cost of most data centers.

Companies are designing server environments with significantly more electrical capacities than before. Major data centers I worked on 10 years ago involved 50 or 60 watts per square foot, today they have 200 watts and more.

Fortunately, during the past decade there have been efforts across the data center industry to develop more efficient designs. Metrics have been created to evaluate how server environments consume energy, water and other resources, and there are several tools on the market for data center operators to monitor and manage their infrastructure.

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