Solar power, DC servers can keep off-grid data centers humming

A combination of solar panels, direct current (DC) power technologies and water-cooled computing systems could help IT-intensive businesses operate more effectively in parts of the world where the electricity grid is unreliable.

IBM this week rolled out just such a system at its software development lab in Bangalore, India. The system, which includes a 6,000-square-foot array of rooftop solar panels, should be able to supply a steady 50 kilowatts of power for an average of five hours a day, for up to 330 days per year.

By using high-voltage DC power conditioning methods, which helps to  reduce AC-DC conversion losses, the technology can also cut a data center’s energy consumption by about 10 percent, according to IBM.

In many emerging markets, electrical grids are undependable or non-existent. That often forces companies to rely on expensive diesel generators. As a result, it can be both difficult and costly for organizations in such regions to deploy a lot of computers, especially in the concentrated way in which they’re used in data centers.

IBM says its solar array technology package makes it possible for banks, telecommunications companies or government agencies to consider setting up a data center without having to rely on the grid. The combination of technologies effectively lets users create their own DC mini-grid inside the data center.

In many data centers, high-voltage, DC computer servers and water-cooling systems are already beginning to replace traditional, alternating current (AC)-powered servers and air-conditioning units. According to IBM, its Bangalore array is the first to blend solar power, water cooling and power conditioning into a “snap-together” package that can run massive configurations of electronic equipment.

“The technology behind solar power has been around for many years, but until now, no one has engineered it for efficient use in IT,” said Rod Adkins, senior vice president for IBM Systems & Technology Group. “We’ve designed a solar solution to bring a new source of clean, reliable and efficient power to energy-intensive, industrial-scale electronics.”

The Bangalore solar-power system will be connected directly into the data center’s water-cooling and high-voltage DC systems. The result: a compute power of 25 to 30 teraflops using an IBM Power Systems server on a 50 KW solar power supply. IBM also plans to make the new solar-power technology available to its clients.

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