Move Server Farms to Desert? Data Is Easier to Move Than Power, After All

By Veronique Greenwood | April 27, 2011 12:08 pm

Coming to a desert far, far away from you?

What’s the News: Server farms are the Hummers of the information age: they use a substantial 1.5% of the world’s electricity, and that number’s growing fast. But by sticking them out in the middle of sunny, windy nowhere, computer scientists posit, we could make use of renewable energy that’s otherwise too far from civilization to be used.

How the Heck:

  • In a paper to be presented at May’s HotOS conference, computer scientists suggest setting up a pair of data-processing centers in Egypt and in Australia and running them on solar and wind power generated on the spot.
  • The crux of the situation is that connecting these sites to a power grid would be hugely expensive (thought that hasn’t stopped some countries from considering it), but since fiber-optic cable is inexpensive, sending data there and back would be comparatively cheap.
  • In essence, it’s easier to move photons, which can carry bits of information, than electrons, which make up electricity, the lead researcher told Technology Review.

Not So Fast:

  • Moving data centers into the hinterland makes a lot of sense in some ways, but there are other considerations. For one, who’s going to move all the way out there to tend them?
  • Keeping all those servers cool has been said to eat up 50% of the electricity such centers need—in fact, Iceland has proposed that its chilly climate makes it an ideal place for server farms. Would moving them into a desert like southwestern Australia cause those costs to skyrocket?
  • Furthermore, if the centers run on renewables, customers might not be able to rely on them at all times, meaning that they’d have to be used mainly on less time-sensitive number crunching.

The Future Holds: We might be closer to doing this than we think. At least one company is already running its network of data centers with renewables, and they have figured out a way to solve the problem of reliability, according to Technology Review:

The network uses supervisor software to shift computing according to the availability of wind and solar power at various sites, and, says Martin Brooks, an independent research consultant working on the GreenStar Network, this works well enough to allow the network to handle even finicky applications like running a video server. The video, says Brooks, doesn’t skip even as the virtual machines hosting it are transferred, over an ultrafast fiber-optic network, between servers thousands of miles apart. “We have certainly had people consider [this project] outlandish, but we live it every day, so we don’t think that way,” he says.

As for the desert angle, no one seems to be doing it yet—but it seems worth a try.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Jim Johnson

    Actually, the renewable energy idea shouldn’t run Iceland out of the server farm market. Don’t they get like a quarter of their energy from geothermal generators?

  • Lea

    Too hot? Don’t be silly – stick the complex underground, have the solar above.
    But the system to store power for use 24 hours could well make this non economic.
    However! There’s plenty of desert close enough to civilisation that it could be done *and* be connected to the mains.

  • James McQualter

    Underground will keep the heat out during the day, but also trap more heat in as well. Would be interesting to know the trade off efficiency wise. Would be interesting to see if ventilation from data centers could be incorporated into solar towers (the ones that generate wind under a greenhouse skirt, not the ones that produce steam by focusing light).

  • s

    You also have a humidity problem with an underground facility. You trade powering and AC for powering de-humidifiers, which are just as thirsty for energy.

    I like the cold climate idea. Forget solar….use wind turbines. Find someplace with a really high altitude and lots of natural wind conditions.

  • Ruth

    I think that the underground idea is a good one. I don’t think that in an extreme desert environment that there will necessarily be that much moisture underground, so humidity should’t be a huge issue. Certainly some sort of venting and air circulation using the soil temp to cool the air (like a geothermal system) could be employed.

    In parts of the Outback of Austrailia lots of people live underground. I read about it in Bill Bryson’s book “In a Sunburned Country”. He didn’t describe the homes as damp.

  • Cathy

    This is already occuring in the US – there are large scale data farms in Arizona. Burying them underground actually helps a lot with cooling, and in the desert humidity is not really an issue. Since it’s the desert, flooding is only a concern once every few hundred years. The innovation would be adding in the solar and wind farms on top of them to power them, instead of hooking them up to the local grid. It’s definitely a feasible idea.

  • Rob Crawford

    How about we just build power plants that work instead of all the religious-driven “Green” BS?

  • Dave E.

    What Rob said. Some people obviously have too much time on their hands.

  • Clint Laing

    Re #4, s: There would be minimal humidity: the air is usually so dry, you simply bury the control room and keep it seperate from the server room, but nearby. Then use ducting to bring over air from the control room to give the servers just the humidity they need, to control static electricity. And when it storms, shift the airstream to ducting from outside, or close the server room off altogether. The dehumidification would be required a very little of the time, IMHO.

  • BCN

    Rob, don’t be silly we can’t have big bad reliable power. If we do people might want to keep using it.

    As to the cooling issue; I believe that they are now designing systems that don’t need to be 65 to run so proper design and seperation of hot/cool reduce the cooling signifcantly.

  • OneDay

    A simple and cheap cooling system to operate is to circulate water from one well to another with a heat exchanger in the path. Most ground water from 100′ down is less than 60F, and is a much better thermal transfer agent than air. Since the water is never exposed to evaporation or other loss, it is never ‘used’ up, furthermore, it doesn’t matter if it is drinkable or contaminated with anything short of being corrosive to the piping. The cost of the ‘cooling’ is reduced to the cost of pumping the water and circulating the air. If the wells are more than 100′ or so apart, the incoming water will never have a detectable heat residue.

    This type of system is used for isolated farms in the prairie states where it is used to provide the sink for a heat pump for both heating and cooling. The cost of drilling the wells can be prohibitive in some area, and very inexpensive in others.

    Yes, you can design most electronic equipment to operate at higher temperatures. It will generally reduce reliability and increase failure rates. Fault tolerant systems will prevent the customer from ever seeing the failures, but the decisions will all be driven by the financial assumptions of the bean counters. If there is a belief that ‘green’ offers some tangible benefit it will dominate the choices, regardless of other factors. Politics beats out rationality every time.

  • Kevin

    Granted you wouldnt need MANY employees, but how does one convince employees to either live in the middle of nowhere or commute via helicopter on some crazy week on / week off schedule.

  • Jacknut

    @Kevin, that would be interesting. Data Center worker could become the Information Age equivalent of the deep sea oil roughneck.

  • Nathan Kaiser

    Another issue is latency. While Egypt would work well, data centers should be located close to the users (consumers) of that data. Otherwise, you start to come up against the speed of light as a limitation which creates performance issues.

    Serving data from Europe to a customer in the US can add 100ms or more of time required to get the page to load. If you are talking about an interactive site (Google Docs, gaming site, etc), that would be untenable.

    Locating a data center in Australia would add even more latency.

  • memomachine

    And ….. all we need then is an old woman with a shovel looking for copper ….

  • Patrick Casey

    This isn’t practical for most data.

    Latency is a killer for the modern internet; its why people put huge tranches of content onto CDNs; to get it network close to the consumer.

    Bandwidth on the backbone isn’t infinite. Take traffic which used to be local to Boston and route it instead across the country to Arizona and your backbone traffic goes way up, saturating the fiber.

    There’s a class of compute bound problems you could move off to the moon if you wanted to, but for most modern data center “stuff” latency is a serious factor.

  • Oscar

    It doesn’t have to be in a desert. Put a server farm in an abandoned salt mine in Kansas. The salt keeps himidity very low. The undergroud facility – complete with wiring and all support infrastructure – is already there, and Kansas already has enormous wind farms for obvious reasons.

    Also, there’s no need to worry about people not wanting to move to work in a remote server farm. Prosperity is the biggest draw of all, and tech jobs pay well.

  • Walter Sobchak

    Iceland is a terrific idea. Not only do they have lots of cold, but they have an ample supply of geothermal power, and they are about halfway between Europe and the US. Further, it is really cheap right now because the banking crisis hit them very hard.

  • http:///www.chicagoboyz.ent Shannon Love

    Honestly, the crap we think of just to avoid building a few nukes.

    This idea is a joke. Solar power is pointless for any critical system. By the time you build all the redundant capacity and storage necessary to actually have the kind of 24/7 reliable power you need for a critical system, you’ve spent at least 10 times what a non-solar install would cost. Wind is not much better. Neither make much sense in a true desert where sandstorms blot out the sun, throw grit into gears and polish metal.

    I guess this is a mark of a civilization made stupid by material wealth. We are so wealthy and isolated from the practical affairs that we can considered such a resource wasting stunt. Our ancestors would think us mad. Tthe 800 million humans today that live on $2 a day, probably just want to slap us.

  • geek49203

    IT guy here. This idea won’t fly.

    The vast majority of data is held governments and companies that are beholden to a myriad of security laws and standards. Being brutally honest, most companies won’t let its servers outside of its buildings, and putting them in another country would be unthinkable. Egypt would be referred to as “BFE” in a heartbeat, and the idea would be ridiculed into submission. For instance, the Commonwealth of Virginia not only locates its data inside of Virginia, but its central data facility requires a Federal security clearance to get near its server rooms (which are protected by guards, tank traps, CCTV, and a blackout on Google Earth maps, to name a few).

    Second, this idea assumes that WAN links all work all the time. Well, my home office Internet service is supplied by 2 providers now due to outages. Just one WAN outage can cost millions, and it can be caused by a backhoe, a squirrel, or a civil war in Egypt (purely hypothetical examples, ya know).

    Third, let me push back on this idea of IT being energy hogs. While what we do consumes electricity, let us acknowledge the ways that we save the environment, starting with the ability to let people telecommute and have video conference.

  • Sounder

    It makes more sense to put these server farms in areas with abundant, cheap energy. Areas around the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon for example. Hydroelectricity is more efficient than the recent fad “sprawl” energy sources people are throwing away their money on. Wind energy is a scam.

  • Fred Z

    Why don’t you kiddies put up your money, your parents’ money, your friends’ money and all the money you can borrow, all to put up a server farm.

    Then you can have a few ‘thoughts’ on where it should go. You will find the ‘thoughts’ expressed here are as nothing compared to the ‘thoughts’ of a capitalist having many meetings with anxious investors, many meetings with engineers, many quiet sessions with a spreadsheet and many midnight cold sweats lest he impoverish himself, his family and friends.

  • kwo

    Is data actually easier to move than power? Planning to pull wire out to the facility? Launch more geosync sats? Install MW repeaters between the site and civilization?

    Also, data centers of this scale require steady power. You can’t just turn them off when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing. Which means you’d either need to store energy, which is currently unfeasible, or pull power lines from the grid to the data center. Which is now more expensive because the data center is out in the middle of nowhere. A nuclear-powered facility wouldn’t have this problem, but would of course present other challenges.

  • Austin

    Except the wind will not blow at times and the sun will not shine at times due to dust storms and rain.

    And most commercial data farms are near their customers because its is LATENCY not bandwidth that is the issue. Undersea cables are few and easily cut as well.

    Political risk is a big deal as well. Egypt has a huge political risk.

    IMHO data farms in the future will have their own captive supplies like small nukes.

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @Nathan, @Patrick, latency is def. something to think about. The researchers give the example of non-time sensitive work, like analytics processing, as the ideal use of a system like this.

    @kwo, there’s a reason the proposed centers are in Egypt and Australia–they’re on opposite sides of the globe and thus one will be in light while the other’s in shadow. By shifting computation to whichever center currently has power, they hope to address the problem of continuous operation.

  • Jimmy Doolittle


    Great Idea.

    Google already has a server farm right next to a dam on the Columbia River, at Dallesport. Cheap electricity was exactly the reason.

  • Dean

    I won’t pretend to address the technical aspects, but to answer one commenter, being in the desert doesn’t necessarily mean being in the middle of nowhere. it could be near Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Santa Fe…

  • Foobarista

    Not sure if building out in the desert is such a great idea, but the idea of building where you could be very near a power station make sense. Why not have server farms in North Dakota or West Virginia where you can have natural gas or coal station, or if AGW is your pet worry, anywhere near a nuke plant?

    This would be a particularly good idea for secondary, disaster-failover data centers that have to be “always on” but don’t need quite as much human babysitting as primaries.

  • Doug Jones

    Iceland wins with reliable hydroelectric power and Ghod’s own cooling capacity provided by the same water flow. Next!

  • The Arcadian

    This brain trust is solving all the wrong problems, probably because they’ve never had to solve actual problems. Out here in the real world connectivity/latency, reliability/redundancy, and power/cost efficiency are pretty darned important. Indeed, the only reason why green power for servers farms is even in consideration is that actual power costs are such a small factor in the equation.

  • HydroBob

    Bring them to Grant County in Washington State where we have some of the cleanest and cheapest power in the country from using Hydro Power provided by the Columbia River. Plus you can keep hard working Americans working!

  • Barista Training Adelaide

    appurtenant googled throughout to your site. sound is a path toto lovely doorpost. aye what I used to be trying in that.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar