Researchers get $2.6M to cultivate energy-efficient virtualized data center

With the ultimate goal of building a real-world, energy-efficient data center that others can emulate, scientists and engineers at the University of California, San Diego are building an advanced data center to test the energy efficiency of computing systems under real-world conditions.

The GreenLight Instrument project will use over 40 sensors in a controlled datacenter environment - two flatbed truck-mounted Sun Modular Datacenter S20s, or Blackboxes -- to measure temperature, humidity, energy consumption and other variables, in addition to monitoring the servers.

Each Blackbox can hold 280 servers and researchers said they hope to use the data to find ways to minimize the power needed to run the computers, to make use of novel cooling sources, and to develop software that automates the optimizing of power strategies for each given computing process.

In order to utilize the system, a virtual-reality version of the modular datacenter will come into play. Rather than grant users physical access to the GreenLight Instrument, OptIPortal tiled display systems will serve as visual screens - letting  researchers "see" inside the instrument. Users will also be able to query and visualize all sensor data in real time and correlate it interactively and collaboratively, researchers said. From their virtual world users will be able to zoom into the racks of clusters as well as see and hear the power and heat, from whole clusters of computers down to the smallest instrumented components, such as computer processing and graphics processing chips, researchers said.

According to researchers information from the GreenLight project will let researchers make deep and quantitative explorations in advanced computer technologies, including graphics processors, solid-state disks, photonic networking, and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), alternative computing fabrics to devise architectural strategies for efficient computing systems.

The National Science Foundation will provide $2 million over three years from its Major Research Instrumentation program for UC San Diego's GreenLight project. An additional $600,000 in matching funds will come from the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

To eliminate the need for air conditioning, each Sun Modular Datacenter uses a closed-loop water-cooling system with built-in heat exchanges between equipment racks to channel air flow. This lets the unit to cool 25 kilowatts per rack, roughly five times the cooling capacity of typical datacenters, researchers claim. The racks can also be placed close together, further reducing the structure's overall eco-footprint and increasing energy efficiency by eliminating dead space. 

Energy usage per server rack is growing from approximately 2 kilowatts (KW) per rack in 2000 to an estimated 30 KW per rack in 2010. Every dollar spent on power for IT equipment requires that another dollar be spent on cooling - equivalent to double the cost of the hardware over three years, researchers said.

Researchers expect the facility will provide computing and storage services to large-scale projects in five scientific areas: metagenomics; ocean observing; microscopy; bioinformatics; and digital media. Researchers from these fields will be able to carry out quantitative explorations into energy-efficient cyberinfrastructure in a real-world environment.

Some of the research groups participating in GreenLight will re-locate servers, switches, computer clusters and related equipment to be deployed inside the Sun Modular Datacenter. The scientists will continue to operate their equipment virtually and remotely over UCSD's high-performance network, just as if the computers were still in their labs, researchers said.

 "We will be running full-scale applications on full-scale computing platforms, so we will be able to draw conclusions about the comparative amount of energy that is consumed by one workload versus another," said Calit2 Director Larry Smarr, co-principal investigator on GreenLight and PI of the Community Cyberinfrastructure for Advanced Marine Microbial Ecology Research and Analysis (CAMERA) metagenomics project.

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