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Case Study: Datacentres get religion

Would you house a datacentre in a diamond mine or an old chapel? These organisations did, with great success.

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Are you looking for a new datacentre? One that promises an abundant supply of energy and offers the latest in cooling technology?

You might want to take a gander at what Boston College (BC) is doing with its new datacentre. Not only does it provide the latest amenities, but it boasts its very own patron saint watching over the racks of blades, storage devices and power gear.

The centre, which moved to the empty St. Clement's chapel last year, features 16 stained-glass windows, one of which depicts St Isidore (aka San Ysidro). Isidore of Seville was credited with creating the first encyclopaedia, and the Vatican recently gave him purview over the World Wide Web. Now Isidore looks down at BC's glass-enclosed control centre from his stained-glass perch.

The chapel, on BC's Brighton campus, has a space advantage over the library. The library's fifth-floor data centre was a non-expandable 3,000 square feet. In comparison, St. Clement's Hall is about 4,500 square feet - enough space to add a backup generator.

In densely populated areas, IT pros must often make a hard choice between retrofitting existing sites or building a new one where land is at a premium and construction costs are high. In this case, BC's CIO found in the chapel exactly what she needed: A big chunk of space, unused and available.

"The space was so monumental, we had to take advantage of it," says Marian Moore, BC's vice president of information technology and CIO.

The challenge then was to retrofit the space for IT needs while respecting its aesthetics. To take best advantage of the chapel while preserving the windows, the architects designed a glass room - a box within the box of the chapel - for the operator control room.

BC removed some mainframes and started using blade servers instead, about 300 now. The old building's infrastructure couldn't have handled the blade servers' load, nor the heat it would generate, Moore said. "Blades may be smaller, but they put out a lot more heat. The other major problem with the old space was there was no backup power." The latter issue was huge a couple of times when construction work cut the main utility power line, Moore says.

St. Clement's is not the only religious-themed working datacentre.

Barcelona's MareNostrum supercomputer centre, created by the Spanish government and IBM, is in a 1920s-era chapel at the Technical University of Catalonia. The chapel, secularised years ago, was available and viable - with some work - says Juan Jose Porta, chief architect for high-performance computing at IBM's Boeblingen Labs in Germany, who led this effort.

Back in 2003, the idea was to prove how quickly a blade-and-Linux-based supercomputer centre could come together, Porta says. "We had a very tight schedule; we had to go from original design to up and running in nine months," he said.

The church had been closed for more than 50 years and during that time had served as a private estate and a school for nuns, and was then donated to the town, he explains.

There were dual challenges. First, the designers had to figure out how to control humidity, temperature and even dust. Second, the architects had to "integrate the new technology into an old building," he says.

As at BC, they put a glass cage inside the building for the operations console. While there are some big hurdles in converting older buildings to IT centres, chapels and churches offer the advantage of big open spaces and high ceilings, which actually offer an air-flow advantage over even some of the newer buildings.

MareNostrum uses air flow, front to back, as the primary means of cooling, with the air entering at 15 degrees Celsius and exiting at 32 degrees to 35 degrees Celsius. That air then enters a secondary cycle, flowing into heat exchangers that use water to suck out the accumulated heat. That warmer water is then cycled out of the system and is allowed to cool for reuse.


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