Aligned Energy changes the data center model

Data centers are a big, expensive and increasingly important part of the fabric of technology. A new center opening soon looks to change the cost models in the industry.

coal plant to data center
Credit: Google

Aligned Energy is about to complete construction of its Phoenix data center, a facility that it claims is leading the way in terms of data center efficiency. Aligned Energy's leaders are so sure of the efficiencies they're driving that they're introducing a new model for how data center space is bought and sold.

But before we look at that, let's look at some fundamentals around data centers.

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It is a generally accepted fact that data centers, a massive and growing industry, is highly wasteful of both energy and water. Indeed, Greenpeace recently went out on a limb with a campaign and report questioning the environmental impact of some major data center users and calling for a move to environmentally efficient construction and operation of data centers.

And no wonder: According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, data centers are one of the largest and fastest growing consumers of electricity in the United States. In 2013, U.S. data centers consumed an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—the equivalent to the annual output of 34 large (500-megawatt) coal-fired power plants and enough electricity to power all of the households in New York City twice over. And they are on track to reach 140 billion kilowatt-hours by 2020 (an increase of 53%)—equal to the annual output of 50 power plants, costing American businesses $13 billion annually in electricity bills and emitting nearly 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year. Data centers use 2 percent to 5 percent of all the power created in the U.S. during any given year.

And depending on the sources cited, the electricity wasted to power servers doing little or no work is 50 percent to 70 percent of the total electric bill.

It is the issue around under-utilized servers that is of concern to Aligned Energy. So, what is Aligned Energy doing differently, and how will this reduce the environmental impacts of data centers generally?

What Aligned Energy is doing

Instead of the usual model for data center operators, which is built around selling customers space and billing them for their planned usage, Aligned Energy is introducing a model that it says is analogous with the public cloud vendors. The company is introducing a pay-for-use model that it estimates will save customers between 30 percent and 50 percent per annum in data center costs. Customers will be charged for the computing power they actually use rather than the theoretical amount they could potentially utilize.

In order to still run a viable business, Aligned Energy is taking advantage of new advances in data center design. It is using a patented heat removal system, conductive cooling, which utilizes 85 percent less water than traditional data centers. Despite tighter server density than the norm, Aligned Energy estimates 150,000-gallon water consumption per day, far less than the more usual million gallons per day of traditional data centers.

Largely as a result of Greepeace's advocacy, the issues around data centers generally and inefficient data centers, in particular, are becoming more broadly known. Increasingly, data centers are sited in locations with high solar or wind exposure to take advantage of renewable energy. Additionally, there is a move to develop data centers in colder climates where cooling is less of an issue than in hot climates.

Whether Aligned Energy is a curious exception or an indicator of what will become the norm in the future remains to be seen. One thing is obvious, though: Data centers are a growing and increasingly impactful part of the technology industry.

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