Yahoo’s Chicken Coop-Inspired Green Data Center

Design inspiration can come from unusual places — for Yahoo (s YHOO) and its data center design team, it was chicken coops, which utilize outside air and can reduce cooling power and costs. On Monday, Yahoo announced that the first data center to mimic this fine-feathered design has been built, commissioned and is up and running in Lockport, New York.

The 155,000-square-foot data center, which can accommodate 50,000 servers, is cooled almost 100 percent by outside air (in contrast to the large power-hungry chillers in most data centers), and uses 40 percent less energy than typical data centers. While cooling can traditionally suck up a good half of the energy consumption of a data center, Yahoo’s Coop design attributes just 1 percent of its annual energy consumption to cooling.

Yahoos VP of Data Center Engineering & Operations Scott Noteboom compared the design innovation of the Coop to a technology disruption as large as Henry Ford’s automation of the auto factory in an interview with me last week. Yahoo can get a lower cost to build and run a Coop; it’s more energy-efficient; and it’s more simple and quicker to build than traditional data centers, said Noteboom. Yahoo already has other Coop data centers under construction in undisclosed locations.

Tapping into outside air for data center cooling can only work in certain regions. The Lockport data center is in an area surrounded by lakes, which sends cooling winds to the region. Last year, the Green Grid released an online tool to help data center operators determine how cost-effective and useful outside cooling is at their location.

Yahoo spent the summer testing and validating the Coop technology and determining that the Power Usage Effectiveness metric (or PUE) of the Coop is a low 1.08. PUE, monitored by The Green Grid organization, measures the energy efficiency of data centers, and a PUE of 1 is excellent, while a PUE of 2 is not so good. Google, (s GOOG) in comparison, has touted data center designs that can deliver a PUE of 1.2. The current average PUE for data centers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is a pretty high 1.92.

Noteboom told me he thinks high PUEs for Internet companies data centers will not be a sustainable competitive offering going forward. That’s an “exciting change that has happened in this business recently,” said Noteboom.

Earlier this year, Yahoo received a $9.9 million grant from the Department of Energy to build the Lockport data center. While that’s just a drop in the bucket of the cost of the $150 million data center, the grant validates Yahoo’s innovation, noted Christina Page, director of energy and climate strategy for Yahoo. While Yahoo has worked with green data center startups like SynapSense before, Noteboom told me that much of the technology that his team wanted to deploy for Coop was unavailable on the market, so Yahoo had to invent it themselves.

On top of the energy efficiency of the Coop data center, Page tells me that the Lockport facility will be powered by 100 percent carbon-free hydropower (basically, power from dams), thanks to the utility in the region, which generates electricity from hydropower. Page said that the clean power aspect was definitely something Yahoo considered when building its data center in the region. Google has also been investigating how to weave more clean power into the mix of its data centers. Facebook, on the other hand, has been criticized by Greenpeace for building its first data center in Oregon where the local utility generates over half of its power from coal.

Greener data centers will play an increasingly important role for Internet companies. According to the DOE, data centers are responsible for 3 percent of U.S. energy consumption, and growing, and a typical 125,000 foot data center consumes $3 million worth of energy per year. With more data centers being built to support our always-on culture, companies will continue to look to ways to cut that energy bill.

For more research on green data centers check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

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