Thinking Off the Grid: Independence for today’s Data Centers via Data Plants?
Question. Why do data centers need to be connected to a dirty, expensive, unreliable electrical grid? Answer. They don’t and they don’t want to be either. Integrating a data center directly into the power plant -- what we are calling our Data Plant program -- will allow a data center to pick its sustainable fuel source and shield itself from grid volatility.
As customer demand for more and more cloud services continues to grow, Microsoft, as well as many other IT companies, will need to aggressively plan for how we can significantly reduce our carbon footprints and make our data center operations more efficient. The necessity for clean, renewable, reliable, and low cost power will increase exponentially in the near future. Without a bold shift in strategy, our entire industry will become more dependent on a costly, antiquated, and constricted power grid.
The future requires a fundamental shift in how we approach data center design and how we source energy for our data centers. I still think the biggest opportunities are ahead of us. Today, Microsoft is focusing on integrations that will drive down costs and improve sustainability long term:
- Integration from the Chip to the Utility
- Integration across the Hardware and Software stack
Our team has been focusing on this since last year, and right now it's really about how do we integrate even beyond what we've done already? How do we integrate from the chip all the way out to the utility, but not only from a hardware perspective? How do we integrate across that whole stack and make the right tradeoffs to drive the most sustainable, affordable solution?
So what is a Data Plant? In 2010, I started introducing the idea of a Data Plant at industry speaking engagements, as a grid independent data center and the integration of power plants and data centers. This concept opens up a host of options for a data center operations team, allowing it to target clean, sustainable, cost effective, and reliable fuel. A Data Plant can be integrated with the grid for back-up, or in an island mode to facilitate locations that are not near large transmission lines. As an option, a connection to the grid would allow the power plant to maintain a maximum capacity factor; in other words any unused power can be sent back into grid, keeping the power plant fully utilized at all times and eliminating the risk of stranding capacity.
Currently, our team is researching the first-ever grid independent fuel cell, data center that is fueled directly from biogas. The experiment is small scale, so we can demonstrate and measure the benefits of it like we did with our “data center in a tent project” in 2008. We are also talking with several municipalities about a public-private partnership to test a prototype. The impact of this Cleantech project is significant. For one, biogas is 100 % renewable. A small 200 kW prototype data center will offset over two million pounds of CO2 emissions per year which is the equivalent of about 300 Honda Civics being taken off the road. One can start to see how significant this program will be when it’s implemented in the megawatt scale.
Where do you find biogas? Landfills and water treatment plants are two of the most common sources, although there are many others. Water treatment plants are mission critical installations that produce methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than CO2, as the sewage from our communities are broken down in an anaerobic digestion process (decomposition without oxygen). Landfills produce methane in a similar way as our garbage slowly decomposes underground. The methane that is produced by both approaches must be flared, converting it to CO2 to minimize the impact on the environment.
But haven’t I heard of other data centers powered by biogas? This data center will be constructed directly on a water treatment plant or landfill site and will consume waste gas that is typically flared off. Some data centers are reported to be fueled with ‘Directed Biogas’ where biogas is injected into the natural gas pipeline and then natural gas is purchased at the data center site many miles away. The Data Plant consumes the biogas as it is produced onsite making it purely biogas powered.
Why Fuel Cell? The process used in fuel cell technology yields a very reliable source of energy while producing a fraction of the emissions that other generation technology emits. The clean electrochemical reaction of this device makes it a much cleaner and easier to secure air quality permits because there are no carcinogenic DPM (Diesel Particulate Matter) to worry about. Compared to internal combustion type generation technology, a fuel cell’s Nitrous Oxide (NOx) and Sulfuric Acid (SOx) emissions are barely measurable. Fuel cells basically exhale the same thing you and I do, CO2 and water vapor.
In addition to the clean technology benefits, fuel cells offer us a host of other advantages including increased Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF), higher availability, pay as we grow, flexibility in fuel sources, high electrical efficiency, combined heat and power source, and reduced dependence on traditional data center infrastructures such as five minute UPS and back-up diesel generators.
Simplified Design. Ironically, the unreliability of the grid requires us to install a complex array of UPS, back-up generators, maintenance bypass circuits, power conditioning, etc., that adds additional impending sources of failure. Keep in mind, a data center does not actually have to incur a utility outage for there to be problems. Spikes and sags at the millisecond level can result in component damage downstream. The reality is data centers are constantly bombarded with power quality events and transients that over time degrade the built in protection infrastructure of the data center lowering confidence in older, well-engineered data center electrical plants.
As the demand for cloud services grows, we are looking at new methods for maintaining the high availability of our applications, while becoming more sustainable, efficient and cost effective so we can pass those benefits on to our customers and our shared environment. A constraint we all need to work with, is the fact that our electrical grid was never methodically planned or engineered for the significant growth we are experiencing today. And it certainly was not engineered to take on the proliferation of data center growth. Independence from the power grid will allow our industry to minimize its impact and ease some of the constriction already taking place. The Data Plant is one way of giving us an ability to manage the growth of our clouds in a thoughtful manner: building in sustainability from the ground-up, so we can run sustainably every day. Our goal is to reduce the impact of our operations and products, and to be a leader in environmental responsibility.
So, in parting let me give you my final thoughts. Clearly, the industry is going to face some challenges with respect to power, carbon, and water as a resource. Within Microsoft, we are working to proactively address these issues. You can expect massive integration in cloud infrastructure, and it's purely driven by sustainability and a total cost of ownership advantage. Remember, lower costs generally mean better sustainability too. If you drive your costs down, you are actually using less material and energy. That also makes it more sustainable. Think about that in terms of the data center infrastructure and about data as the next form of energy. How would you rethink your operations if you did that? As I've said before, there's tons of opportunity and there's certainly a lot for all of us to learn. This industry is blessed with a lot of smart people attacking the same problem set. Personally, I am very excited about these possibilities and believe I am fortunate to be working on this technology at this time.
Our team will continue our efforts through R&D, blogs, involvement in industry organizations, speaking at conferences, and white papers to share what we are doing in the most transparent way possible. We have been busy in the past year creating all the content you will find on our web site today. I hope you will explore the videos and arsenal of related papers from our engineers and subject matter experts published on it. I hope these will continue to stimulate a healthy discussion and continued collaboration with our industry participants.