Web host sees bright future with 100% solar-powered data center

What's next for this 100% solar-powered data center? A dirt roof that will cut air conditioning costs by 50%.

"We believe all life is precious and deserving of our respect, kindness and care," says Endangered Species Chocolate on its Web site. It boast that it buys its cocoa from "small family-owned properties" in Nigeria, where it is grown "in the natural shade of rich, diverse forests."

Endangered Species Chocolate is about as green a company as you will find, so it's not surprising that it selected Affordable Internet Services Online Inc. to host its Web site. AISO, based in the Southern California desert in Romoland, claims to run the only data center in the U.S. powered entirely by solar energy.

But the Web hosting company wants to be greener still. It's in the process of installing a dirt roof that it says will reduce air conditioning costs by 50%. Drought-resistant plants will grow there, fed by water recycled from the data center's air conditioning units, says Chief Technology Officer Phil Nail.

At a Glance
Phil and Sherry Nail
Phil and Sherry NailCompany: AISO

Business: Affordable Internet Services Online Inc.

Headquarters: Romoland, Calif., www.aiso.net

Business: CEO Sherry Nail and her husband, CTO Phil Nail, co-founders

IT Staff: Four

Claim to fame: Greenest of all data centers

Cost-benefit: Greater investment in facilities, but ongoing utility cost savings and a big public-relations payoff

If that all sounds a bit improbable, consider the origins of the company, which now hosts 15,000 Web sites for businesses around the world. Ten years ago, Nail and his wife, Sherry — who is now the "boss lady,"or CEO — quit jobs in manufacturing and, with no IT experience, went into the IT services business.

"We were looking for something different to do, and we said, 'OK, this is interesting,' "Nail explains. "We started with a real big blank piece of paper."

The Nails were so inexperienced, they failed to realize that Internet start-ups in the late 1990s were supposed to borrow to the max to leverage their investments. AISO built out its data center entirely with funds from operations — no debt, no leases — and that, Phil Nail says, enabled it to survive the dot-com bust that claimed so many other technology start-ups.

AISO has 120 solar panels — 60 on each side of the data center — providing 12 kilowatts of power. The power is converted from DC to AC and then saved in batteries for, literally, rainy days. Solar tubes pipe in natural light during the day. Three separate Internet backbones back up one another and bring traffic through redundant switches, routers and firewalls. Servers, too, are clustered for backup, and every server has redundant connections to a storage-area network.

The server farm at AISO may be the only thing that isn't growing. Last year, AISO rolled out virtualization software from VMware Inc. and reduced its servers from 120 to four. Nail says he sold the extras on eBay.

He says AISO has invested almost $1 million in its 2,000-square-foot data center so far. A conventional data center of similar capability would have cost about $750,000, Nail says. But monthly expenses are about half those of a typical facility, with savings of $3,000 to $4,000 in electricity costs.

AISO's financial picture can't be used as a guide for other companies, though. Actual energy savings will vary from place to place, depending on latitude and climate, and from state to state, depending on energy prices and whether the state offers financial incentives for energy conservation.

Andrew Kutz, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah, says that in addition to its current energy savings, AISO is safeguarding itself and its customers against rising energy prices. There's an element of public relations gimmickry in AISO's green data center, he observes, but that's OK. Says Kutz: "Being green these days is a competitive edge. They are unique, and they are on to something."

Find out more about environmentally friendly technology at Our Top 15 Green IT Stories.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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