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Rutgers Builds Solar-Powered Computing Center, Studies Power Management

Contractors recently installed 16 polycrystalline solar panels on top of a novel computing facility on the roof of Rutgers's School of Engineering Building. Researchers will use Parasol, as it's called, to study how to effectively manage computing and data processing with solar-generated electricity.

Parasol was introduced to the computer-science world at last month’s EuroSys 2012 through an award-winning poster presentation, which is on the Parasol website.  

Ricardo Bianchini and Thu D. Nguyen, professors of computer science, are directing the project.  Bianchini has received more than $1.5 million in National Science Foundation grants for research into energy efficiency in computing. Also, Google Inc. has awarded a three-year, $1.5 million grant aimed at slashing energy usage in large Internet data centers to a team led by Bianchini and computer scientists at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia.

Bianchini and Nguyen are now extending their work from energy efficiency to renewable energy.  Their most recent NSF grant ($420,000), for “Scheduling Energy Consumption in Green Datacenters,” was awarded last year. The research, which involves post-docs and graduate students, will examine issues surrounding solar power and computing, such as scheduling computations to maximize use of green energy by factoring in the amount of daylight hours, cloud cover, and seasonal changes in the sun’s position. Parasol will be the platform for their work, and simulations have demonstrated the system’s feasibility even before it has gone on line, Parashar said.

“Because data centers consume an enormous amount of electrical power — more than most people realize — making them more energy-efficient is a great opportunity for us to help reduce the carbon footprint of computing,” Bianchini said. “And incorporating green power into the equation, naturally, would be a huge plus.”

Composed of a large stainless steel frame, 16 solar panels and a metal structure the size of a large SUV to house computers, batteries, transformers and other electrical equipment, the facility was mostly completed earlier this month. The facility was funded by Michael J. Pazzani, vice president for research and economic development.

“Rutgers has long played a leading role in technology development and policy issues connected to solar, and Prof. Bianchini is an extremely accomplished researcher in the field of energy efficiency in computing, so the decision to support this project was relatively easy,” Pazzani said.

Parasol’s rooftop location not only puts the equipment right under the solar panels, it permits “free cooling,” which is cooling that does not require energy-intensive compressors or chillers. The system monitors temperature and energy consumption of all components, and turns off devices that are not in use. Parasol is wired into the grid and will use “brown energy” when solar is not available and its batteries are exhausted. The researchers have developed GreenHadoop and GreenSlot, which are load-scheduling software systems that maximize the use of green energy.

Ed Tate has been working in higher education communications for 14 years at Rutgers, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Educational Testing Service. He also spent a decade in PR, running an agency and working as an independent consultant providing strategic communications counsel and services to leading companies and the pharmaceutical, chemical and financial industries. For the first third of my career, he was a journalist in radio, TV and newspapers.

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