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New energy-efficient data center will propel OHSU into ‘big data’ research

OHSU technology expert designed center with geodesic dome, other features, making it one of the most efficient data centers in the country

It is a data center unlike any other.

It looks a bit like a lost spaceship, settled on a chunk of land at the edge of Beaverton, Oregon.

It isn't that, exactly. But Oregon Health & Science University's new data center is a step into the future, in how it provides the "big data" computing heft that will give medical researchers new ways to study — and hopefully cure — disease.

It will also be an integral part of OHSU's computer data center systems. And its unique geodesic-domed design will allow the center to do all of that with remarkable power efficiency — achieving an efficiency rating that’s 34 percent better than all self-reporting U.S. data centers for 2014.

OHSU's new data center — formally called Data Center West but affectionately called Data Dome — began operating July 1. Working in tandem with OHSU's current data center in downtown Portland, it will serve the university's advanced computing needs for years to come.

But its real power lies in its ability to easily expand into a data powerhouse with more than 3.8 megawatts of computing power. (The average residential house consumes about 1.3 kilowatts.)

The $22 million data center is composed of modular pods that can easily accommodate more computer servers as needs increase. At full capacity, the data center could house thousands of servers and hundreds of petabytes of data. A petabyte is one million gigabytes.

The ability to store, retrieve and analyze such huge amounts of data is important because the world of medical care and research is increasingly becoming a world of "big data." Scientists and physicians are increasingly using computer technologies to analyze an individual's genetic profile, to do advanced medical imaging and to do other research. The objective is to see and analyze the human body in more precise ways to better treat and cure disease.

“What we're trying to do with cancer, for instance, is to understand it at many levels of resolution — to help individual patients and to search for cures,” said Joe Gray, Ph.D., associate director for translational research at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and director of the OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine. “But the technologies we use to do that generate tremendous amounts of data. We need the capability of storing and analyzing that data in ways far beyond traditional technology. OHSU's new data center will help us do that. I believe that projects like this are incredibly important to the future of treating and curing cancer — and other diseases.”

But it's the unusual design of the OHSU Data Dome that gets a lot of the attention. And the energy efficiency the design provides is already getting accolades.

The data center, designed by Perry Gliessman with OHSU's Information Technology Group, includes large air intakes toward the bottom of the building and large air vents toward the top. Within the data center, the “pods” of computer servers are arranged, like a large wagon wheel, in a hub-spoke-and-wheel design. This arrangement provides the “shortest path route” for air, fiber optic and power distribution.

All of these design elements will allow the center to predominantly use ambient air for cooling — instead of massive air conditioning systems that most data centers use. That’s a large part of why the center will have a “power usage effectiveness” — or PUE —rating of 1.13. The ideal PUE rating is 1.0. The 2014 average for all self-reporting data centers in the U.S. is 1.7.

“OHSU has developed a truly innovative data center that is designed to meet high energy efficiency and performance goals,” said Oliver Kesting, commercial sector lead for Energy Trust of Oregon, which plans to award cash incentives to OHSU because of Data Center West’s energy-efficient design. “Energy Trust is pleased to support OHSU’s energy efficiency mission through their application of advanced design strategies and technologies that will achieve the most from their investments in energy efficiency solutions.”

The building's dome is very seismically stable and will also help the data center easily shed snow loads — or in more rare circumstances, volcanic ash.

OHSU has a patent-pending on the data center's design. Gliessman is director of technology services and advanced computing for the OHSU Information Technology Group. He began working on the plans in 2010 when, based on OHSU’s strategic vision plan, it became clear that increased computing capacity was essential to achieve goals for healing, teaching and research.

"After being very familiar with how data centers were designed and built, I simply believed there was a better way," Gliessman said. "I believed that we could build a data center designed in a way that made it more efficient and more easily expandable to meet OHSU’s vision. I'm very pleased to have met the design goals, and excited about the technology opportunities that will be enabled by this facility."

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