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

By Veronique Greenwood
Apr 27, 2011 9:08 PMNov 20, 2019 1:24 AM


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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.

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