The goal is ambitious: to be greener than Google. It's an even more lofty goal since it comes from an oil company, not exactly regarded as one of the most environmentally conscious. But ENI, Italy's biggest oil and energy company (and the country's biggest company full stop), isn't shy about sharing its ambition: it wants the record for the greenest mega datacentre in the world. Which, according to the company, means beating Google.
ENI's people are hoping to succeed with the help of a brand new complex close to the village of Ferrera Erbognone, a one-hour drive south from Milan in the north west of Italy. The building will host ENI's central processing systems, both for information management and seismic simulation processing.
The new facility is right next to ENI's own natural gas power station, which provide the juice. Thanks to its location and cooling adopted, the datacentre is poised for a PUE (the ratio between the total energy consumption and the energy consumed by the IT equipment) below 1.2, which would make it one of the most efficient in the world and put it within touching distance of that Google-beating target.
"The record we are aiming at is Google's PUE of 1.13. Our simulations tell us we are on the right track to beat it or come very close to it. If we won't make it, it will certainly be a well-fought battle," Michele Mazzarelli, ENI VP and project manager of the Green Data Center program, told ZDNet.
Whether ENI's challenge has been successful won't be known for sure until a year from now, when the process of measuring the datacentre's key metrics will be completed. In the meantime, ZDNet went to visit the facility to see how ENI execs hope it will become greener than Google's.
ENI's new datacentre's architecture is built around six flues, which give the structure an easily recognisable shape. The building — which has a size of 5,200 useful m2, up to 30MW of computing power and up to 50kW/m2 of energy density — will become the company's only datacentre, taking over from the four doing the same work at the moment. "We are on loan there and their activity will be discontinued," Mazzarelli said.
Every bit of the company's processing power will be hosted in the new facility: a total of 60,000 CPUs running applications on Linux. The cost of the centre is approximately €100m, but the company is betting on a quick payoff: on its first day of operation, ENI's CEO Paolo Scaroni said that, thanks to the savings it will bring, ENI expects its investment will be repaid in just three years.
The efficiency goal set up by ENI's management are based on two pillars. The first is the proximity to the company's natural gas power station (on the right in the picture). Being so close to the source makes the facility more efficient, by cutting the energy that's lost when it's transported around the grid.
The second and most important pillar is the flues, along with the free cooling system that uses them.
The air gets in from the lower side of each structure (grey in the picture), is pushed through filters by a system of fans, cools the servers, and is then expelled through the upper part of the flues (also grey). "This direct free-cooling technique means the air conditioners are switched on less than 25 percent of the time," Mazzarelli said.
Thanks to the fact the flues are located upon a hill, the air's entrance point is 20m above the ground, where levels of particulate matter are lower.
ENI calculates that the filtering process (in the picture) removes about 3,000kg of dust per year thus returning a cleaner air to the external environment. "Everything in our project was designed to achieve maximum efficiency," Mazzarelli said. "That means it was not driven by architects but by plant engineers."
An array of fans pulls in the air and pushes it towards the filters. These fans are able to move large quantities of air but at an extremely slow speed (1m to 1.5m per second), which contributes to the efficiency of the whole cooling system.
"We could not forget any detail. The two biggest server rooms are 1,000 m2 each and need 10MW of power that becomes heat. In order to cool them we had to build the flues in a certain way — the right way," Mazzarelli said.
Once filtered the air is ready to do its job: cooling the servers, which is easier said than done if you are determined to do it efficiently. "Then again, you don't want to waste an inch of air, so to speak," Mazzarelli joked. That means, he said, sending the air where it is most needed: in front of the servers rather then behind them.
Having been heated and pushed out by the servers, the hot air rises and exits the facility through the flues' holes. "The result of this design is that inside the cage, where you need it, you have a temperature around 25C, while outside it's 35C," Mazzarelli said. "Once out of the cage, the hot air now can go outside because of the Stack effect."
The datacentre will also host the supercomputer ENI uses for seismic simulation processing. Half of it, a 1.5 petaflop machine (pictures above), has been already installed on site. Once completed it should reach performance of 4 petaflops, which should be good for a spot in the list of the world's fastest supercomputers.
To make the whole thing more efficient, ENI has also commissioned the development and certification of special uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems which are activated only when needed, in order to achieve maximum efficiency.
If all this will be enough for the top spot in the efficiency rankings is to be seen. "For sure the challenge is exciting and we'll try our best," Mazzarelli said. While to a casual listener, it may seem something of an understatement, for those who can read between the lines, it sounds more like: "Google, watch out."