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The iCloud Data Center one of the Greenest on the Planet

Apple is rapidly expanding its data center, but not without sophisticated plans for managing its environmental impact. Some photos and data from these centers have been published. Let’s take a look at the company’s ambitious efforts to build one of the world’s greenest data centers .

With great power comes great responsibility

Data centers are essentially warehouses filled with stacks of servers (pictured above) with which Apple facilitates billions of electronic transactions every day, requiring very high processing capacity. Populated server racks in huge buildings can consume as much electricity as a small city.

The iCloud Data Center one of the Greenest on the Planet
The iCloud Data Center one of the Greenest on the Planet

Apple receives about two billion iMessages a day from its 250 million iCloud users, across two dozen million Macs and a base of 500 million iOS devices.

In 2012, the company’s data reflected an estimated 8.1 billion transactions on iTunes (including about 4.4 billion in music and 3.7 billion in video) , as well as an additional $7.5 billion in App Store sales.

The company’s data also focuses on handling terabytes of documents and images in iCloud, iOS device backups, emails, calendars, and contacts, as well as supporting iPhone location search, iBooks, Maps, Siri, Mac and iOS software updates, and hundreds of thousands of App Store applications.

A recent study by Strategy Analytics noted that iCloud is now the largest provider of online communication services for U.S. consumers, equivalent to Dropbox and Google combined.

The hardware racks that support all this service not only consume large amounts of energy to operate, but also generate large amounts of heat that must be evacuated, a task that requires a great deal of additional energy. Apple is currently in the process of building without destroying the environment.

New construction from existing

Apple entered the data center business with its acquisition in 2006 of a 107,000-square-foot center originally built by WorldComMCI , a web hosting company. Located a half hour drive from the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, it was originally built in 2001, just after the collapse of the dot-com bubble. Before it was purchased, it had never been used.

As part of the company’s energy-saving policy, some sources claim that Apple has optimized energy use at the center, while also designing new facilities from the ground up with energy efficiency as a core principle.

In 2009, rumors began to circulate about the first data center built entirely by the company, located in Maiden, North Carolina. Apple pointed out that “is the only data center of its kind and size, earning LEED Platinum certification” for its eco-efficient and sustainable design.

LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) awards points based on a program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council , which analyzes “sustainability, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality” . There are four levels of certification, Platinum being the highest.

The lessons learned in the design and construction of the Maiden facility are being extended to two new data centers that are now under construction: one in Prineville, Oregon, and a fourth in Reno, Nevada.

Clean energy, efficient design, green buildings

Early last year, Apple reported that it had been granted regulatory approval to purchase renewable energy directly from the wholesale market for its Newark, California, sites through the Direct Access program. As a result, the company is using renewable energy to run its initial plant entirely, mostly from the California wind.

At Maiden, Apple developed a number of energy-efficiency programs, including sophisticated power and cooling monitoring. The company cools the servers using a massive chilled water storage system that improves chiller efficiency by transferring 10,400 kWh of electricity at peak times, taking advantage of off-peak hours each day.

Add that at night and during the coldest hours, the outside air allows them to turn off their water coolers 75% of the time. “The cold air is used through controlled variable speed fans to exactly match the airflow to the requirements of the server at any given time, thus allowing extreme precision in the management of the cooling distribution” .

Last year, Apple built the largest solar photovoltaic field on earth around the Maiden data center. About 100 acres with a 20-megawatt system that the company plans to double with another field of equal size later this year.

At Maiden’s data center, Apple also completed a 10-megawatt installation of biogas-powered fuel cells, which is also the largest in the country.

The company worked with Duke University’s Nicholas Institute to help develop a market for biogas to power fuel cells, which the company cites as “an example of how Apple is driving improvements in the availability of renewable energy” .

Greenpeace doesn’t give truce

While Apple was developing and building this pioneering green facility in Maiden, Greenpeace produced a widely publicized report that specifically attacked the apple company for building a data center in what Greenpeace called “the dirty data triangle” , implying that the construction in North Carolina “indicated a lack of corporate commitment to clean up the energy supply for its cloud operations” due to the region’s already existing dependence on coal and nuclear power.

Greenpeace published a report that rated the “clean energy” used by companies, placing the multinational in last place among other companies that have data centers, based on erroneous assumptions. Apple responded to the Greenpeace report by stating “we believe this industry-leading project will be the greenest data center ever built and will join our next facility in Oregon, which runs on 100% renewable energy” . The environmental group later apologized.

Innovative projects in Oregon and Nevada

Apple continues to expand its efforts at Maiden to build sustainable and environmentally sound data centers elsewhere. The company said that in its Prineville data center it has worked with “a number of renewable energy providers to develop and acquire power from local wind, solar and micro-hydro resources (generating power from water flowing through irrigation canals)” .

Finally, while we don’t see such a huge growth in sales of iOS devices and company services as to build so many new data centers, the size and scale of Apple’s data center expansion suggests that the company could unveil significant new iCloud services this year, perhaps at the Worldwide Developer Conference. Stay tuned.

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