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Making the most of massive data centres

Bianca Schroeder's research involves making massive data centres more efficient (Photo by Ken Jones)

University of Toronto Scarborough professor Bianca Schroeder is on a mission to create more reliable and efficient massive data centres. These hulking facilities, which are used by companies and organizations to house their essential data and computer networks, consume vast amounts of energy and continue to experience system failures. 

Schroeder, who is a Sloan Research Fellow, spoke with writer Don Campell about her research and why it’s critical that massive data centres be made more efficient.

What got you interested in computer science?

It’s not a very typical story because I think I may be the only person in the field who finished high school without ever using a computer. I was always a strong math and physics student so a career counsellor recommended looking into this new thing called computer science. I loved it from the start and was very lucky to have discovered it.  

What is a massive data centre?

They are large, industrial-size computer facilities that can use as much electricity as a small town. They are used for anything that relies on massive computations ranging from internet search engines like Google to organizations that make weather predictions.

What got you interested in doing research on data centre efficiency?

Mostly because it’s a pressing issue that needs to be dealt with. Since data centres continue to increase in both number and size, the amount of energy they consume and how well they operate will be important issues in the future.

Why is making them more efficient so important?

From an energy consumption standpoint it’s really important they become more efficient. A massive data centre can produce as much in carbon emissions as a small country. Currently, three per cent of the world’s emissions are from data centres and that will continue to increase as the number and size of these data centres continue to grow.

It’s also important from an operational standpoint. Too many failures in your data centre can be fatal. So if a failure causes your website to go down for an extended period of time or if there is hard disk damage in your data centre it’s not good for business. In fact, not only will valuable, sometimes personal data be lost during a failure, a company could also go out of business as a result. 

What does the future hold for data centres? 

There will be faster hardware but you will also continue to see an increase in the size and scale of the data centres so it will be important that the components be better managed. For example, a part of my research focuses on the cooling systems. Data centres typically operate at temperatures from 20C to 22C. What we discovered is that a 1 degree increase in temperature could save 2 to 5 percent of energy consumed and nothing will happen in terms of system reliability. So most organizations can run their data centres warmer than they currently are.

© University of Toronto Scarborough