Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, December 3, 2022

Scaling Renewable Energy In The Datacenter 

Why does being green in the datacenter matter? That is the question that the people responsible for the electric bills at the massive datacenters run by Microsoft, Facebook, and Rackspace Hosting took on at the recent Open Compute Summit.

The Open Compute Project got off the ground in April 2010 when Facebook open sourced the designs of the machines and the glasshouse used in its Prineville, Oregon datacenter. Momentum for the project, which promotes the development of energy efficient servers and datacenters, gathered quickly. Coming up on its third anniversary, OCP's membership roster includes such industry notables as Microsoft, IBM, Intel, AMD, Hewlett-Packard, Arista Networks, and others from the vendor community, as well as big names like Rackspace Hosting, Goldman Sachs, and Fidelity Investments in the user community.

Last week's Open Compute Project (OCP) Summit drew more than 3,400 participants to discuss the OCP's goals and developments. One of the highlights from the event was a panel titled Exploring Renewable Energy Solutions for Datacenters, which was moderated by Bill Weihl, manager of energy efficiency and sustainability at Facebook. The four-person panel brought together Vince Van Son, data center energy manager at Facebook; Gary Cook, senior policy analyst at Greenpeace; Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist at Microsoft; and Melissa Gray, senior director of sustainability at Rackspace.

Greenpeace's Gary Cook emphasized the critical nature of the current energy situation: "Despite the tremendous improvements in efficiency, your energy demand is going up and your emissions are going up," he said. "If you take a step back, and look at how much electricity this sector is consuming, how much the ICT sector is consuming, along with the datacenters and the network operations – if it were a country, the electricity demand would put it sixth in the world."

"We've just begun to tap the world's population in terms of bringing people online if predictions hold true, so that means the energy demand is going up, so it becomes really important where the energy comes from. From Greenpeace's perspective, this is critical infrastructure, if we're going to transition to a renewable energy economy, this infrastructure needs to be powered with 21st technology and not older technology," he continued.

On a positive note, Cook added that Greenpeace has seen a lot progress with companies making headway on efficiency and having more awareness about where they get their electricity.

Microsoft's Rob Bernard brought up some important action items. "These are large energy demands," he said "Capacity is going to grow, density is going to grow. You have to think differently about energy supply and energy use."

Bernard stressed that not only is the makeup of the electrons important, but there's also a need to dramatically drive down electron use per transaction.

"That is a big priority for our entire industry," he said. "We care immensely about the cost, we care quite a bit about making sure we're consistent with our goal of carbon neutrality and sustainability, and we also think we have a unique opportunity and an obligation to help advance 21st century energy infrastructure."

Facebook's Vince Van Son ticked off  the ways that renewable energy matters to the social media company, starting with the environmental aspect.

"Renewable energy is a key way to reduce environmental footprint," he said. "We're all here to maximize efficiency of our datacenters...and that's part of our DNA, but we do have to consume energy, and so we spend a considerable amount of time and effort hunting for those renewable energy resources that fit, and when I say fit, that means cost-competitive, scalable, and replicable. We can do a one-off, but we're really not trying to do just a one-off because we're looking for solutions that other people can add to, and build on and learn from and then they can use those solutions at their datacenters as well."

For other companies that want to be more proactive in their approach to energy and green energy, Rackspace's Melissa Gray recommended making one person responsible for managing energy with the ability to look at it holistically from "people, pocket, and planet."

For Rackspace, green energy is a value proposition both for the business and the customers and community. Gray explained that Rackspace began its green efforts by doing an energy inventory to assess who used it, how much they used, and how fast their use was growing. The company also wanted to better understand the planetary impact of is operations. What would Rackspace do from a strategic perspective to move forward, for example, engaging with utilities and customers. Gray says that due to Rackspace's somewhat smaller scale compared to the other companies on the stage, its green energy comes from renewable energy certificates and levy-exempt certificates.

Another trending topic was brought to light by Microsoft's Bernard. The software giant is considering whether it makes more sense to disaggregate power supply and power consumption or put them together. Bernard said that there are pros and cons to each approach. With colocation, you're not adding carbon to a specific area; however, if you approach it as an optimization model, you identify where is the most efficient place to get the cleanest electrons in the world, and fund those projects where you get the highest return. There's really not a right or wrong answer in Bernard's opinion, it's still an experiment in many ways. Microsoft has different models in place, but as Bernard explained, it is not always feasible to have a green energy supply next door to your datacenter.

Facebook's Vince Van Son also discussed the tremendous opportunities that can come from collaborating with utilities. IT companies can aggregate their needs with the needs of other consumers either within or across industries. Van Son said that the financial carrot can be used to remind utilities that even with the onus of regulation, a regulated rate of return and very low-cost of capital can work in the favor of utility companies. Despite the high capital costs of renewables, they don't have the regulatory burdens associated with fossil fuels. The investment comes down to first costs, so there's an ability to deploy capital and earn a fair rate of return.

Before wrapping up the session, the panelists offered a few words of advice for other companies dealing with the energy challenges of the 21st century. Some of the essential points made were to align your green energy strategies with your company's core mission and business needs (Rackpace's Gray); develop relationships and publicize your efforts to go green to attract symbiotic partnerships (Greenpeace's Cook); figure out the personality of your company – let who you are drive your approach (Microsoft's Bernard); collaboration, engagement and learn by doing, but also address the financial aspect of growing energy costs up-front and recognize it for the elephant that it is (Facebook's Van Son).

As a final point, the panelists revisit the importance of collaboration and commitment when it comes to effecting significant, long-term changes to the status quo. They see Open Compute as a way to foster and harness that team effort to bring about positive changes.

About the author: Tiffany Trader

With over a decade’s experience covering the HPC space, Tiffany Trader is one of the preeminent voices reporting on advanced scale computing today.

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