Yahoo's data center chief draws lessons from century-old tech

Data centers following same route as auto industry, says Scott Noteboom

LAS VEGAS - When he was in Buffalo, N.Y. looking for a data center site, Scott Noteboom, vice president of global production operations, at Yahoo Inc. said the first thing he wanted to see were old factory buildings. He wanted to learn how the factories used the cool air coming off the Great Lakes in an era before refrigeration.

That is how Noteboom thinks. He looks at what he is doing -- designing and operating data centers for one of the world's largest Internet-based companies -- through the perspective of history. And from this love of history, he has realized something about the future of data centers.

Some people may view old factory buildings as blight, but Noteboom sees the legacy of distant colleagues working through the problem of maximizing cooling without refrigeration. To illustrate his point, he showed a photo of an aluminum smelting plant, with two rows of buildings and a chimney and furnace between them. The designers "had to manage temperature in that building without using any cooling," said Noteboom, "and they were using a dense heat source in the middle creating a chimney effect" to evacuate the heat.

"That velocity of air would pull in outside air from the sides to allow the building to breath," he told attendees at the Afcom data center conference here. "You can learn a lot of lessons from those past factories."

Yahoo applied those lessons to its recently completed Lockport data center in upstate New York. It relies on outside air, eliminating the need for big and costly chiller systems.

That move was also possible because Noteboom was willing to think beyond the expected, such as the recommended hardware temperature and humidity ranges established by the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Noteboom believed that hardware could perform outside the recommended humidity ranges without failing.

"How many computers have you had fail in your house because of humidity?" said Noteboom.

Noteboom researched the issue back to the 1950s, and believed the humidity recommendations arose initially from the use of paper in data centers, specifically the use of punch cards, which changed density depending on the humidity. Noteboom then applied what he calls "Hillbilly math."

"You just have a good gut instinct that you just learn from being in the swamps ... you go with it because you know it's the right thing to do," he said. It is a decision that also benefited from work in Yahoo's San Jose facility, which involved testing servers at 130 degrees and spraying mist on them to see where condensation formed. The U.S. Department of Energy recently gave Yahoo a $10 million innovation grant to help it with its research.

Noteboom's drive to try something different was also based on history with family ties.

His great grandfather was involved in the auto industry at the start of the last century. It was a time when autos, like data centers of present day, were built using specialty approaches. That business model ended with the arrival of Henry Ford's assembly line.

Ford turned out autos that sold for $395, versus the $2,800 it cost for a car built at the company for which Noteboom's great grandfather worked.

A lot of people in the tech business don't like the word "factory," said Noteboom. But while 100 years separates the birth of the auto industry and the Internet age, tech faces the same kinds of problem as early automakers.

"Technology people always like to think of what they do as a specialty," said Noteboom. But he sees data center technology moving in the same direction as the automotive industry: to highly efficient, low-cost production.

Noteboom said he is saving his company hundreds of millions of dollars with his data center approach. But building an efficient data center is just a step, he believes, to the merging of with cloud computing. Efficient data centers and cloud computing will eventually be as powerful a combination as what Henry Ford accomplished, he said.

It's not just Yahoo and the other large Internet providers with big data center needs; change is happening at smaller IT shops, too. Harley Davidson Motor Co. recently merged 13 data centers into two and consolidated 2,000 physical servers to just 400. It cut its annual power bill by more than $500,000, and cut per-server energy costs by 44%.

Extensive virtualization is also leading to the creation of a private cloud that allows developers to create virtual instances, and then provision and manage them. The private cloud wasn't part of the plan, but become possible once consolidation was achieved, said Dereberry, technical lead of data center facilities at Harley Davidson.

"That's not anything we planned on -- it just happened. As we developed it, it worked," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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