Does eBay Have a Solution for Japan Data Center Operators?

I usually do not write a blog reacting to real-time news. I leave that to other bloggers, such as Katie Fehrenbacher who covers those pretty well. I usually write a blog when the subject matter comes to cross my path. I cover the story in the intersection of where IT meets energy and express my opinion. The data center segment is one of such a good example, as well as smart grid.

When eBay released the information on their new data center (after their Mercury project in Phoenix) in Utah in June, media jumped on it and reported intensively. In addition to the US data center market, I have covered the data center market in Japan, which is seldom reported in the US media. (I set up a session and acted as MC to discuss Japanese data centers in the recent Silicon Valley Leadership Group 5th Data Center Energy Summit. But that is another story.) This is partly because of the Japanese media and data center players in Japan only report their news in Japanese. Unfortunately, the Japanese language is not spoken outside of Japan and the foreign media is hungry for information but has no use with the news reported in Japanese. So I have been encouraging Japan Data Center Council (JDCC), a consortium of data center operators, vendors and users, to make their information available in the US.

Most of major Japanese data centers were not damaged by the earthquake in 2011 but after that, Japan’s power supply climate got cloudy as it does not have a solid plan as to what to do with the halted (except 2 of 50) nuclear reactors and hunting for new energy sources. As such, Japanese data center operators are searching for new power sources. I brought fuel cells to their attention as a potential energy source for data centers. Fuel cells that were dismissed as experimental a few years ago are now gaining some good tractions among data center operators, thanks to eBay, Google and Apple for their use at data centers. JDCC wants to find more about the appropriateness of the fuel cells for data centers. I made an arrangement for them to visit eBay to find out and to find out how my friend Jeremy Rodriguez was doing with his new role.

The following is a summary of our conversations with Jeremy and his associate Serena DeVito, and the information that is publicly available.

From left: Jun Sato (Mitsubishi), Dai Tojima (NEC), Serena DeVito, Jeremy Rodriguez and Hideki Okita (Hitachi)

eBay’s data center in Utah is the latest one after the one in Phoenix (Mercury project). There are two phases of the construction. The first phase is called Topaz and it has conventional configurations, such as power supplied by local utilities with a 30 MW substation on their premise, UPS boxes and diesel generators. Quicksilver, the second phase, which is attached to Topaz, was to be constructed with the same conventional way. But they decided to try something new. Instead of laying out rows of UPS boxes inside and generators outside, eBay decided to install Bloom Energy Servers. The next two figures indicate two configurations, conventional (UPS boxes and generators) and new (fuel cells) ones

Conventional configuration with UPS boxes (inside) and generators (outside) (courtesy of eBay)

New configuration with fuel cells (courtesy of eBay)

eBay plans to install 30 fuel cells from Bloom energy. A fuel cell unit produces electricity through a chemical reaction fueled by either natural gas or biogas. For the Quicksilver project eBay will be purchasing biogas, however because biogas isn’t available to the site they will install pipe infrastructure and consume natural gas from the utility grid.

The Bloom Energy Servers (fuel cells) are not the only greener energy option eBay is pursuing in Utah. When they originally looked at sourcing third party, off-site renewables for the Topaz data center, they found that the law in the State of Utah would not allow it. They worked with a Utah state senator to pass a bill in 2012 that changed this law, and are now in the process of accepting proposals for as much as 20 MW of additional renewable energy. Also, with the fuel cell installation, UPS boxes or generators were no longer necessary and space was released for Bloom Energy Servers that took much smaller space. Smaller footprints and less or no CO2 emissions sound pretty good.

As for the power requirements at the Utah data center, 30 200kW (total of 6MW) Bloom Energy Servers will be installed with the capability to install up to 30MW total in the future. While the power load to Quicksilver ramps up, any excess from the 6MW will be used to power the existing Topaz facility. As eBay plans to expand the data center, it probably requires more than 6MW. Because each Bloom Energy Server is 200kW in power capacity, they can add as many boxes as they need according to varying needs.

So far so good. Advantages seem to be very convincing:

  • Cleaner power
  • Local generation with less delivery losses
  • Smaller footprints

However, I had a six million dollar question. Data center operators are very conservative and do not want to use any unproven technologies unless they have been proven to work by many practitioners for many years. The idea to source power from Bloom Energy Servers with the grid as a backup is a total reverse of the traditional design. On a casual look, this may look reckless but I think they took a calculated risk. I understand the final decision of going with this design was made by CEO. If everyone is risk averse, nothing gets improved. I have met and talked to Dean Nelson who is in charge of data center design/construction/operations at eBay and who can make a bold decision with a solid team of people under him like Jeremy and Serena. eBay, along with the likes of Apple and Google, is doing a great service to the entire data center industry to open up a new frontier. Do you recommend this solution to JDCC member companies? Come back in 18 months and ask the question. That was their answer.

After the meeting at a coffee shop, the members of JDCC and I were sharing the excitement from the meeting. Someone said that the solution is only viable where a lot of open space is available. But even in the urban setting, UPS boxes and a diesel generator occupy some space in the building. If they can be replaced with fuel cell boxes that are smaller in size, this could be a viable solution. Well, I cannot wait 18 months for eBay’s answer!

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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