IBM's internal innovations

SOUTHBURY, Conn. -- If you had a blank check, access to IBM's latest products and its best talent, and your task was to renovate a 2,000-square-foot legacy data center, the result would be IBM's sparkling showcase in Southbury, Conn.

Podcast: Efficiently cooling and powering big data centersSlideshow: Inside IBM's Southbury data center

Enterprise data center managers may not be able to replicate everything IBM has done in what data center director Peter Guasti calls a "living lab," but there are lessons here for everyone.

The Southbury data center was built for the 1996 Olympics and was then turned over to IBM's CIO Technology and Innovation group to host internal applications. By around 2006, it was simply running out of room.

So, Guasti and his team built a new data center in the existing space in 10 months without any interruption in service. They increased server capacity fourfold, allowing the workload of three other data centers to be shifted to Southbury, while keeping power consumption flat.

The data center supports a variety of internal company functions, including IBM corporate Wikis and blogs, Second Life, Real Time Translation Service, Media Library, and a Technology Adoption Program in which employees working on innovative projects can access data center resources.

Running hot and cold

By now, the concept of hot and cold aisles is pretty well understood: You pump cold air up from the floor into the front of the server racks, suck the hot exhaust out the back and up into the ceiling vents, where it gets fed back into the cooling system and up through the floor. But Guasti and his team wanted to get more granular.

The first step was conducting a complete thermal analysis of the data center, including the areas above the ceiling and below the floors to assess air flows.

In all, 100 temperature sensors were installed, some at the rack level, some in the ceiling. The goal was to identify hot and cold spots, to fix whatever created those areas, and to continually monitor and control temperatures. There's also a separate set of sensors and control systems for water flow and water temperature.

The data center features two, 30-ton Emerson air conditioners. Data from the sensors feeds into a PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) that automatically regulates the air and water temperatures. Efficient, variable-speed fans in the floor make subtle adjustments to keep temperatures at the desired levels.

The 2,000-square-feet is subdivided into two zones; one for the high-density server and storage racks. Then, there's a second, lower density area that houses networking gear and robotic tape libraries. The two areas are totally separated in terms of air flow, but in case of a failure, dampers can be opened that would allow cool air from the high-density room to be pumped into the low-density area.

In order to avoid cable sprawl, all of the Ethernet and Fibre Channel cable runs across the ceiling, while all of the plumbing associated with the power and cooling runs under the floor.

IBM has developed these nifty Rear Door Heat eXchangers, which are water-cooled devices that mount on the back of server racks to cool the air closer to the CPU, thus reducing the load on the large air conditioning units.

Guasti has a number of projects on the drawing board as he continues to improve the efficiency of the data center. He's planning to take advantage of the cold New England winters to pump air from outside the building into the data center. He has virtualized his servers and storage, and is now working on virtualizing the network.

Security is tight at IBM data center

The first thing you notice upon swinging into the long, winding driveway that leads to the Southbury data center, is a low concrete bunker out of a World War II movie. That's the first security checkpoint.

Once you identify yourself and are OK'd, the gate opens and you proceed to a massive brick building atop a hill. In the lobby, you have to sign in with a security guard. Then you swipe a card to get into the data center room, where a dozen or so staffers are working. Getting onto the actual raised-floor requires an even higher clearance level and another card swipe. Once inside the actual data center, security cameras watch your every move.

This story, "IBM's internal innovations" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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