21 March 2012—When one of the world’s most ambitious university computer centers opens later this year, it will be a “green” facility—green in its environmental cred and green in its bottom line, too.
The US $95 million, 8400-square-meter Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC), located in Holyoke, Mass., will be on a par with the data centers that house the world’s fastest supercomputers, say its proponents. The center has pooled the computing resources of five of the top research universities in the northeastern United States: Boston University, Harvard University, MIT, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts.
Labs, researchers, and computer centers within each member university will be invited to install their racks of servers and clusters. The motivation to do so, the center’s director says, comes down to economies of scale: Build it bigger, smarter, and cheaper, and they will come.
Located on a canal fed by the nearby Connecticut River, the center, built with funding from the state of Massachusetts, EMC Corp., and Cisco Systems, will draw most of its electricity from local hydropower stations. Its electricity provider is also completing a 4.5-megawatt photovoltaic farm—the largest in New England—and a portion of that power will go to the computing center.
In total, says MGHPCC interim executive director John Goodhue, at least 80 percent of the center’s electricity sources will be carbon-free. But it takes more than a low carbon footprint to get a genomics research group at Boston University or a statistics lab at MIT to move its computing hardware 150 kilometers away to an economically depressed former mill town in Western Massachusetts. Holyoke has some of the cheapest electricity in the Northeast, and cutting-edge sustainable computer-center design will enable further cost savings.
As an example, Goodhue says, consider a hypothetical $100 000 server rack today. It has 288 processor cores and cranks through 2 to 3 teraflops at peak performance. At maximum load, that rack uses electricity at a rate of about 15 kilowatts. In Cambridge, Mass., where electricity costs 14 cents per kilowatt-hour, the rack would cost $16 000 to power for a year.
MGHPCC, with its substantially lower power rates, would first cut the rack’s operating electricity bill nearly in half, says Goodhue. It would also realize further cost savings from cheaper cooling costs. (Cooling accounts for a substantial portion of a high-end computer’s power budget these days, Goodhue says.) So the hypothetical rack’s real bottom line for the year—electricity plus cooling—would run $32 000 in Cambridge but only $13 000 at MGHPCC. “Start adding up the racks, and suddenly you’re talking about money,” Goodhue says.
Moreover, at all five member universities, real estate is precious, says Goodhue. “Space is scarce and expensive,” he says. “You could build a costly 90 000-square-foot [8400-square-meter] office building in Cambridge.” Or by relocating 680 racks of university server farms and data centers to Holyoke, member universities could free up that same amount of coveted space in existing on-campus buildings.