Net Zero Data Center a Tool for Testing Sustainability

Prashant Shenoy
Prashant Shenoy

Some computer data centers see electricity bills in the millions of dollars each month, and costs continue to rise, says Prashant Shenoy, computer science, which is why the official opening of New England’s first experimental solar-powered data center located at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke was recently hailed as a promising first step in leading the nation toward net-zero, green data and computing centers. 

Campus officials, researchers, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) representatives were on hand for a ribbon-cutting to open the 200-square-foot Mass Net Zero Data Center (MassNZ), a shed-sized micro data center on the MGHPCC grounds, on Feb. 26. Using it, Shenoy will lead a team of investigators in researching how to power data centers sustainably with renewable energy.

Solar panels next to the facility provide power to run about three racks of a total 40 servers, with cooling systems, batteries and micro-flywheels for energy storage, Shenoy notes. MassNZ will also house a variety of different server, storage, sensor and network systems.

His colleague, David Irwin, electrical and computer engineering, says, “We are the first in New England and one of the first in the nation to be doing this research and ours is certainly the only one of these facilities that is next-door to a real data center, so we can benefit from comparing our experimental scenarios with what it is doing in real time. The combination is unique.”

Experiments to figure out the safest and most efficient way to reduce energy use cannot possibly be carried out in a working data center without risking damage and loss of data, the researchers point out. “With a smaller prototype like this new one in Holyoke, we can study a real production data center and experiment with different methods of cooling, energy storage and other variables that you couldn’t do at a real data center,” says Irwin.

Nationally, as more data centers come online, the companies and research institutions running them are among the most keen to reduce their carbon footprints. Unfortunately, powering a data center with solar energy or other renewables is difficult, Irwin points out. “The sun isn’t out all the time, and to deal with irregular solar, you can either use stored power or turn things off. The way in which you turn things off can affect the data center’s performance. The way you decide to activate or deactivate servers has a potential to affect research data there.”

He and Shenoy estimate that five to 10 graduate students per year will be involved in various aspects of the MassNZ experimental data center, and many class projects can be based on using its sensors, solar panels and other features.

Among scenarios the researchers plan to simulate are cooling with air conditioning vs. outside air, converting from solar DC to grid AC power, and using power from several different storage battery types. They are collaborating with HG&E to deploy these. One of the first tasks for the team will be to create software for managing experiments remotely from campus. Once fully operational, MassNZ will be available to UMass and other MGHPCC university researchers for conducting experiments. It is supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation, the American Public Power Association and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.