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OHSU makes data storage a breeze

Innovative, energy-saving design makes new OHSU 'data dome' a model facility


Readers' note: This story was amended Thursday to reflect that OHSU's Data Center West is located just within Hillsboro city limits.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Perry Gliessman, Southwest Portland-based Oregon Health and Science University's director of advanced technology, stands in front of a geodesic dome that houses OHSU's new Data Center West in Aloha.As the mercury steadily reaches toward the 80s on a bright, sunny Tuesday morning near Aloha, the temperature inside a hulking, silver spaceship-like geodesic dome keeps things in the cool and comfy neighborhood of 70 degrees.

There would be little wrong with this picture but for the fact that — unlike at most digital data storage facilities — there is nary an air-conditioning unit to be found.

Through an inherently basic, yet ingeniously designed “ambient” louver-and-fan system, the dome housing Oregon Health and Science University’s newly completed Data Center West keeps it cool simply through varying velocities of circulated outside air. As the mild interior breeze cools the pods of digital data servers, storage units and controls, the warm air naturally rises and wafts out through louvers atop the dome.

“This is one of the most efficient ambient air-cooling systems in the country,” said Perry Gliessman, Southwest Portland-based OHSU’s director of advanced technology. “Most data centers use classic air conditioning. This one has no A/C or ductwork. You can get rid of those systems and have very high efficiency.”

The continuous airflow cycle — which is essentially reversed to heat the building during winter months — saves thousands of dollars in equipment costs, while saving power for the structure’s primary purpose: storing millions of electronic gigabytes of invaluable medical and research data.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Perry Gliessman points in both directions to where racks of servers are cooled inside OHSU's new Data Center West in Aloha.

Beyond traditional technology

Gliessman, a seven-year OHSU veteran, designed the cooling system, along with the rest of the domed storage facility located on its West Campus near OHSU’s National Primate Research Center in Hillsboro. Construction of the $22 million facility, designed to augment the medical center’s smaller downtown Portland databank for years to come, started in May 2013. The dome operation was brought online on Tuesday, July 1.

Wired to channel up to 3.8 megawatts of computing power, the data center comprises modular pods designed to accommodate more computer servers as OHSU’s medical and teaching facility’s data needs increase. At full capacity, Data Center West could house thousands of servers and millions of gigabytes (measured as a “petabyte”) of data.

Scientists and physicians increasingly use computer technologies to analyze a patient’s genetic profile, advanced medical imaging and other research techniques in an effort to examine the human body more precisely 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 Dr. Joe Gray, associate director for translational research at OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute. “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.”

Based on its outward appearance alone, the facility that some at OHSU simply call the “Data Dome” is a testament to non-traditional technology as well as thought.

Gliessman, a 25-year resident of unincorporated Washington County, started plan and design work on the dome in 2010 with OHSU’s Information Technology Group. The institution’s strategic vision plan deemed increased computing capacity essential to achieve its goals toward 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 enabled by this facility.”

Backups of backups

The building features large air-intakes louvers toward the bottom and an array of air vents near the top. Below the cavernous dome space, 10 computer server “pods” are arranged, like a large wagon wheel, in a hub-spoke-and-wheel design. The arrangement provides the shortest path route for circulating air, fiber optic cable and power distribution.

“It’s a unique combination of design elements,” said Gliessman, who with OHSU has a patent pending on the data dome’s design. “You can put a lot of equipment in a small space and provide an enormous amount of power. We’d like to see a data center like this used as a model.”

The center is linked via fiber optic cable to OHSU’s older data storage facility, which takes up part of one floor of a downtown Portland office building.

The connection between the two centers is part of the dome’s high-redundancy design. To account for routine breakdowns, power lapses, weather-related mishaps and even a major earthquake, everything from power generators to digital data servers to the cooling fans have backups of backups.

“We call it N plus one,” Gliessman explained. “We have extra everything. To maintain OHSU’s research, teaching and health care services, we have to make sure this is operational 365 days and 24/7.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Perry Gliessman points out vents that allow ambient air to cool the inside OHSU's new Data Center West in Aloha.

Well-deserved break

As cutting edge-like as the dome looks and operates, the volume of power needed eliminated solar power as a viable option.

“Solar is good for lower-voltage equipment,” he noted, adding that power is lost in translation from solar’s direct current to the alternating current needed for data storage. “To connect them, you lose a little bit.”

Using equipment with European power standards, however, requires a lower current draw to operate, thus providing further power savings.

“You gain an extra 5 percent in power savings,” Gliessman said, noting the data dome uses “less than half the power to run its equipment than the downtown system.”

Oliver Kesting, commercial sector lead with Energy Trust of Oregon, praised OHSU for Data Center West’s energy-efficient design, with the sustainability-based nonprofit group offering cash-incentive awards to the research institution.

“OHSU has developed a truly innovative data center that is designed to meet high-energy efficiency and performance goals,” Kesting said. “Energy Trust is pleased to support OHSU’s energy-efficiency mission through their application of advanced design strategies and technologies.”

After leading some tours of the dome and hosting a ribbon-cutting event in September, Gliessman envisions taking a step back from groundbreaking energy design work.

“I’m going to catch my breath for awhile,” he said. “It’s been a big effort. But there’s plenty to do.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Perry Gliessman stands in a pod where racks of servers are cooled inside OHSU's new Data Center West in Aloha.



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