Yahoo selling its ‘chicken coop’ data center design

A PUE of under 1.1 can be yours for a mere $1 billion, give or take a little

Yahoo selling its ‘chicken coop’ data center design

Verizon has closed on the purchase of search engine pioneer Yahoo, thus ending the independent run of one of the original internet firms that launched in the early 1990s and the reign of error of Marissa Meyer. But the company is still having a fire sale of its patent portfolio, and one of them is a unique data center design.

The company announced in 2009 an unusual data center design in Lockport, New York. The building was shaped like a chicken coop and would use outside air for cooling with a flywheel-based energy storage system, and it would have an annualized PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) of under 1.1, which was better than what Google was reporting for its data centers at the time.

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The patents for the design, known as Yahoo Computing Coop data center, are part of a larger fire sale of patents Yahoo has amassed over the years. All told, Yahoo hopes to rake in around $1 billion for the sale of 2,500 patents. 

In addition, a Yahoo spokeswoman told Dow Jones the company is offering a smaller group of patents—500 U.S. patents and over 600 pending applications—as part of the auction of its core Web business. 

One reason it’s able to sell these patents is Verizon didn’t bid on everything Yahoo owned. So, it’s able to sell off non-core assets, which is what Verizon wanted. Non-core assets for sale include social networking, messaging, mobile, video and data center cooling patents and patent applications.

According to Data Center Knowledge, Yahoo plans to structure any potential transaction so that it can license the designs from the buyer, thus continue using them. The Yahoo Computing Coop is one such patent it plans to keep using. It already has four data centers using that design.

How the Yahoo Computing Coop design works

The Yahoo Computing Coop design maximizes use of outside air for cooling and supplements it with evaporative cooling when necessary. Lockport, New York, is not far from Buffalo, with its legendary winters, so the building has plenty of natural cooling on which to draw. Cold air enters the building through louvers on one of the walls and fills a plenum, where it is brought to appropriate temperature and humidity.

The design uses fans to direct cool air through the servers and into a central “chimney,” through which warm air travels upward by natural convection into the penthouse that gives the building its chicken-coop look. Once at the top, the air is either absorbed for recirculation or pushed outside.

This design reminds me a little of the cabinets from Chatsworth Systems, one of the unsung vendors in the data center when it comes to unique design. Rather than blowing hot air out the back of the cabinet in the usual hot aisle/cold aisle design, its cabinets use convection to suck in cold air at the bottom of the cabinet and send hot air up and out a chimney at the top, which can then go into an air conditioning vent.

The result is rows of all cold aisles and considerable efficiency. SoftLayer, long before IBM bought it, was a data center host called The Planet. It used the Chatsworth cabinets, and it had a PUE of 1.25 back in 2008, which was very impressive at the time—and still is. The head of operations told me at the time that PUE was thanks to using the Chatsworth cabinets. The concept uses physics, not electricity, to achieve cooling, whether it’s in a cabinet or a whole data center.

Yahoo did the world a huge service when it turned over Hadoop, its own internal project, to the Apache Foundation. It could have kept it as a competitive edge but didn’t, mostly because it was built on Google’s MapReduce, after all.

It would be a shame to see Alphabet, Microsoft or Rackspace grab these available patents and keep the coop design to itself. Every data center design should have the opportunity to make use of Yahoo’s creation. But they’re Yahoo’s patents to sell, and if one company is going to grab them and keep the secret sauce for itself, that’s how the chips fall.

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