Since late 2004, Information Age has been charting the growing sense of alarm over the data centre’s insatiable hunger for power. Yet, while most companies continue to wrestle with the inherent difficulties of building energy-efficient, built-for-purpose facilities, one company stands out, as it somewhat effortlessly brings new data centres online, ready to power unprecedented growth: the mighty Google.

For a company which less than 10 years ago housed its first servers in a garage, the Internet titan has quickly vaulted to the top of the data centre league. It is notoriously secretive about its data centre operations, but current best guesses put Google’s total number of servers at around 450,000, located at 25 centres across the globe. At least two more vast sites are currently being built – one in The Dalles, Oregon, and another in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

It is increasingly clear that Google has succeeded in mastering the art of housing these sprawling banks of servers by ripping up the data centre rulebook. It is well documented how Google has eschewed traditional hardware, preferring to power its business by assembling its own servers in-house. From the rumours that trickle out about its operations, the extent of Google’s willingness to ignore received wisdom is clear. For example, it is believed to run its data centres far hotter than all the textbooks recommend – perhaps as hot as 40ºC.

At a recent get-together at its Iowa site, the invitation-only audience was told that Google believed its data centres were twice as energy efficient as any other comparable facilities.

Like Google, software giant Microsoft has massive data centre expansion ambitions.

It recently announced plans for two $500 million data centres to be built in Chicago and Dublin; others are planned for Scotland and Siberia.

Microsoft is slightly more open about its willingness to challenge accepted thinking. For example, it openly admits that it expects Chicago’s cool climate to enable it to make extensive use of fresh-air cooling – it is reasonable to presume that its facilities in Scotland and Siberia will follow suit.

As our cover story highlights this month, there are plenty of other heretical thinkers. BT has applied some unconventional approaches at its 79 data centres across the globe to great effect.

But while these thought-leaders are challenging some of the myths that have built up around data centre operations, others may not find it so easy to emulate. Simply measuring data centre efficiency is a challenge in itself, and with no standard rating of the energy use of different high-tech equipment, defining true best practice is tricky. But, encouragingly, the thinking is becoming as radical as the problem has grown difficult.

Henry Catchpole

Henry Catchpole runs Inform Direct, a company records management software company which simplifies the process of dealing with Companies House. The business was set up in 2013.

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