All cooped up: Yahoo!'s novel green data center design

Someone once said (I can't remember who) that there are no new plots in literature. The same themes just get recycled over and over with a different characters and cultural norms driving the action.

Someone once said (I can't remember who) that there are no new plots in literature. The same themes just get recycled over and over with a different characters and cultural norms driving the action.

Well I guess the same thing must be true of industrial architecture. Although it may seem like a very odd choice, giant Internet search company Yahoo! is drawing on a very non-technical sort of building design -- the chicken coop -- as the inspiration for its latest data center facility in Lockport, N.Y.

The photo to the right provides a view of the basic building structure, which includes Yahoo!'s patent-pending Yahoo! Computing Coop design. The buildings that house the servers use the same long thin design as those buildings, which rely on the venting chimney system on the top to recirculate cool air and rely on free cooling. There are several 120-foot-by-60-foot buildings at the new Lockport facility, which boasts about 155,000 square foot in total.

Christina Page, director of energy and climate strategy for Yahoo!, says the Lockport facility should be able to take advantage of free cooling approximately 99 percent of the time to keep the facility at the optimal temperature for the servers to operate. The other 1 percent of the time when the weather is hot and humid, the company will use a direct evaporative cooling system to keep the building cool, she says.

Another factor behind this location choice for Yahoo!'s new data center was the hydropower available to energize the facility, which comes from New York Power Authority via the Niagara Falls. Yahoo! also was lucky enough to be able to win a $9.9 million sustainability Green IT grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to fund some of the construction, although Page says the company would have proceeded with the facility anyway.

Page admits that the Yahoo! Chicken Coop design is fairly radical. It definitely will work only in certain areas of the country where the weather is conducive. Overall, the data center will use about 40 percent less electricity and about 95 percent less water than data centers of a comparable capacity, according to Yahoo!'s fact shee about the new facility.

So, for perspective, the amount of power saved through the design could light up 300,000 compact fluorescent light bulbs for an entire year, while the amount of water being saved could provide enough drinking water for 200,000 for a year. Of course, that's the theory, now we'll have to see what happens, now that the new data center is powering all of Yahoo!'s services, including Mail, Messenger, Flickr, News, Sports and Finance.

"A lot of folks are watching to see what we are hoping to achieve," Page says.

This is not an approach, however, that you could use to retrofit an existing facility. For that, Yahoo is drawing on a thermal cooling approach.

The new Lockport facility will have an average power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratio of 1.08, according to Page. That compares with an industry average ratio of 1.92, which is a figure that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last updated in June 2010.

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