Getting to the Root of the Problem: Microsoft Explores Server Rack-Mounted Fuel Cell Power
One of the biggest problems facing data centers is providing sufficient affordable energy to power servers. Microsoft’s study “No More Electrical Infrastructure: Towards Fuel Cell Powered Data Centers” proposes the case for designing server racks with integrated fuel cells instead of relying on grid power infrastructure. According to Data Center Knowledge, Apple and eBay have already implemented fuel cell-powered data centers, but Microsoft’s plan takes things a step further.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, American data centers require 91 billion kWh, or enough energy to power all the homes in New York City twice over, to operate annually. Powering these data centers each year costs U.S. businesses $13 billion and produces 150 million metric tons of carbon emissions. Microsoft’s system addresses the pollution-causing efficiency issues of existing data center infrastructure and reduces the bottom-line costs of constructing and operating a data center.
Traveling the Shortest Distance
The integrated fuel cell model places the power source within the server racks, which minimizes the distance between the power source and servers. The decreased travel distance means less energy is lost through inefficiencies in the transportation and conversion processes. The shorter commute also helps reduce the need for expensive energy infrastructure. According to Microsoft, the electrical infrastructure makes up a quarter of capital costs for constructing a data center: fuel cells replace this cost. The fuel cells also eliminate energy grid dependency, so businesses can build data centers independent of where the grid could support them.
The Reliability Boon
Data centers could practically eliminate power-loss related downtime by switching off the electric grid to fuel cells. According to Microsoft, a fuel cell-based gas grid has a 99.999% reliability rating compared to the electric grid’s 99.9% rating. While the electric grid is exceptionally reliable, losing power for any period of time can cost a data center a small fortune. According to an Emerson Network Power-sponsored study, each minute of data-center down-time costs an average of $7,908 as recently as 2013. Gas tanks are inexpensive, so redundancy is easily affordable to counter fuel cell failure. Additionally, fuel cell-based data centers save on construction costs because they do not need diesel generators and batteries for power backup.
Issues with the Design
The major setback with implementing fuel cells is they can’t increase power production fast enough to handle traffic spikes. Throttling server power keeps things running during spikes, but causes performance problems for end-users accessing the servers. Alternatively, the power supply system can be configured to use energy storage, but this solution requires expensive components for an infrequent problem. A Carnegie Mellon University study, “SizeCap: Efficiently Handling Power Surges in Fuel Cell Powered Data Centers” proposes combining throttling and energy storage to address the issue.
The integrated fuel cell system is not yet ready for primetime. Microsoft plans to implement the system in servers for testing to get real-world measurements to further study the solution. If Microsoft succeeds with this new approach, future data centers may look very different from today’s models.
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