Are Containers Helping Google’s Low PUE?

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Google’s patented “data center in a box” appears to be among the innovations helping it achieve exceptional energy efficiency ratings. The news is the latest sign of containers’ potential to deliver higher density and better energy efficiency than traditional raised floor data centers.

Google said Oct. 2 that its six company-built facilities have an average Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.21, and that one facility had reached a PUE of 1.13. Erik Teetzel, an Energy Program Manager at Google, told Data Center Knowledge that at least one of the six Google-built data centers “could in fact be a container data center.”

Google has never publicly discussed its data center container project. Last October Google was awarded a patent on a portable data centerin a shipping container, confirming a 2005 report from PBS columnist Robert Cringley that the company was building prototypes of container-based data centers in a garage in Mountain View. Containers also featured prominently in Google’s recently-disclosed patent filing for a floating data center that generates its own electricity using wave energy.

Teetzel’s comment suggests that Google has not only deployed its data center containers, but has done so ahead of Microsoft, which is currently putting the finishing touches on a huge new data center near Chicago. The bottom floor of the $550 million facility will house at least 150 data center containers packed with servers.

At a time when the industry is focused on green data centers, Microsoft says the data center containers are exceptionally efficient, and can generate very efficient PUE numbers. “On the proof-of-concept we ran we saw PUE numbers come in at 1.3, and if you compare that with historical data centers, it’s very, very low,” Daniel Costello, Microsoft’s Director of Data Center Research, said in a presentation at Structure 08. “Most data centers around the world would be 1.6 to 2.0.”

Google’s use of a data center “container farm” might explain several industry critiques of the PUE data released last week. Dan Golding of Tier1 Research, in a comment at GigaOm, noted that one data center on the Google PUE data seemed to be “out of band” with the others:

Some of Google’s numbers are suspect. While many are believable, their data for facility “B” is outside the envelope of current engineering. … PUEs of 1.2 in a very large facility with lots of sensors, in the right locations: possible. PUE’s of 1.15 or below? Not with our current cooling technology. 

Microsoft’s James Hamilton notes Google’s description of its cooling towers, and mentions that “the 1.15 PUE with pure air-side economization in the right climate looks quite reasonable, but powering a conventional, high-scale, air and water, multi-conversion cooling system at this efficiency looks considerably harder to me.” Unless, perhaps, that center is a non-conventional facility using containers.

Data center containers have been used for years by the U.S. military. The first commercial product, Sun’s Project Blackbox, was announced in 2006. We noted at the time that the Blackbox “extends the boundaries of the data center universe, and gives additional options to managers of fast-growing enterprises.” Now they are shaping up as ammunition in the data center arms race between Microsoft and Google.   

A presentation by Microsoft’s James Hamilton (who has written early and often about containers) referenced the Google container effort as the “WillPower” project, apparently a reference to Will Whitted, nne of the inventors listed on the Google patent. In a newspaper interview last year, Whitted said that the portable data center project had been canceled.

While Teetzel offered no details, his comment is a departure from Google’s response to previous inquiries about the container project. The company had no comment at the time the patent was revealed. I asked about it in April and got a statement: “We do a lot to make our infrastructure scalable and cost efficient, but at this time we have nothing to announce regarding this specific technology.”

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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4 Comments

  1. teller

    The container data center was first presented by Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive way before Sun or Google.

  2. l a

    I am sure that if Google goes into business to make data centers for sale, they will also include their proprietary file system for 99.999 % up-time. They have the best scalable cluster system ever!

  3. Can't say

    I've worked at 6 of G**gle's 7 newest domestic DC's; haven't seen a single "container" yet so I'm not sure where they're being deployed.