Posted by Rob Knies

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Data centers are playing an increasingly important role in powering 21st-century computing, and that trend seems likely to intensify over the foreseeable future. One of the keys to making data centers efficient is to improve their rate of availability, but that typically entails significant additional costs in infrastructure.

But what if improved service availability could be achieved while reducing infrastructure costs? And what if those combined benefits could be enhanced even further by meeting established industrial commitments to sustainability. Now we’re talking win-win big time, right?

It’s no pipe dream, as becomes evident in a post published Nov. 12 on the Microsoft Data Centers Blog in which Sean James, senior research program manager for Microsoft’s Global Foundation Services group describes how his team, in consultation with Microsoft Research, is taking an unconventional approach to powering a data center entirely via fuel cells integrated directly into server racks.

That work is the result of research explained in the paper No More Electrical Infrastructure: Towards Fuel Cell Powered Data Centers, written by Ana Carolina Riekstin, of the University of São Paulo; James; Aman Kansal and Jie Liu of Microsoft Research; and Eric Peterson of Microsoft’s Cloud Development Services group, presented Nov. 3 in Farmington, Pa., during the 24th Association for Computing Machinery Symposium on Operating Systems Principles.

The paper examines how the entire energy supply chain of a data center, from power plant to server motherboard, can be collapsed into a single server cabinet. A small generator, integrated with the IT hardware, cuts complexity by eliminating electrical distribution in the grid and the data center.

In addition, fuel cells—using hydrogen,, natural gas, ethanol, or biogas—prove to be clean, reliable, and perfect for use by applications for small form factors. The result is a simple, low-cost data-center and fuel-cell system with drastically diminished energy loss and twice the efficiency of traditional data centers.

The joint paper discusses the use of fuel cells to power data centers and the potential benefits in reliability, capital, and operational costs—as well as reduced environmental emissions—that can result.

The bottom line: The suggestion is to bring the power plant into the data center, instead of putting the data center into the power plant. It’s an audacious approach, and if your interest is piqued, please take a look at James’ post and the research paper.