U looks to make server storage more efficient

Keeping servers in portable shipping containers reduces cooling costs.

by Frank

Housed in a large room hidden beneath an office building on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs West Bank, an array of servers store terabytes upon terabytes of information, and that dataâÄôs integrity all depends upon a sophisticated air conditioning system that works around the clock to keep the servers cool.

The UniversityâÄôs Office of Information Technology is now looking to reduce the costs associated with cooling these servers by purchasing up to four portable container-based data centers.

The addition of the new portable data centers to the UniversityâÄôs current network of traditional data centers will cost OIT up to $7 million, said Doug OâÄôSullivan, OIT senior director, whoâÄôs heading up the project.

The portable data centers, housed in 40-foot shipping containers, will save the University money in the long run, said David Du, a University computer science professor.

According to the website of Sun Microsystems, a former industry leader in portable data centers, the setup can reduce cooling costs by 40 percent in one-eighth the space as compared to a traditional data center.

The issue with the traditional centers, which can be as large as football fields, is low efficiency. Currently, the data centers that back up information hosted in the main data centers are scattered across campus and of low quality. The portable data center will provide another safety net in case the main data center experiences difficulties.

“If we just have to cool down a container, we donâÄôt have to cool a lot of space âĦ we are not using,” Du said.

Another downside of traditional data centers at the University is costs can run upward of $30 million.

“This is a realistic and long-term solution for the University and provides a lot more flexibility,” OâÄôSullivan said. “I predict we will not go down the traditional data center expansion route simply due to the large costs.”

In the next few weeks, OIT will finalize a location for the portable data centers. OâÄôSullivan said they will most likely be built on University property near Como Avenue.

While the data centers are capable of withstanding temperatures near minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, OIT is not comfortable exposing them to Minnesota winters. Instead, the data centers will be housed in a simple building or warehouse to protect them from the elements.

After a location for the center is finalized, the University will open the bidding process for vendors, OâÄôSullivan said. He estimated that may begin in mid-December.

The portable data centers will also replace some of the physical servers and substitute them with “virtual” servers, he said.

A physical server is the current trend and is a tangible object, like a laptop, OâÄôSullivan said. In a virtual server, one physical server can be arranged to function as multiple servers, therefore saving physical space.

“The data center market is trending away from the traditional data center and this looks to be the most viable option,” OâÄôSullivan said. “It can be a magnitude cheaper.”