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Microsoft Uses Wireless Sensors to Track Data Center Temperatures

The system, designed by Microsoft researchers, helps the company reduce the cost of cooling the dozens of data centers it operates.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 11, 2009Microsoft's Global Foundation Services division, which oversees the platform the company uses to provide its online services, is deploying a wireless sensor network intended to bring visibility into the firm's data centers and reduce energy wasted in keeping a large room of IT equipment cooler than necessary. The system, developed by the company's Microsoft Research division, was first tested in 2006 and is now being installed at Microsoft's data centers worldwide.

The project, known as Data Center Genome (DC Genome), began with testing a few sensors in a Microsoft data center in 2006. Today, it amounts to more than 700 sensors that the company has been gradually installing, tracking temperatures on individual racks and shelves within its data centers worldwide, thus allowing Microsoft to see the temperature or humidity around each rack of servers.

Master (left) and slave Genomotes

The system was developed following a conversation between Feng Zhao, a principal researcher and manager with Microsoft Research's Networked Embedded Computing group, and Michael Manos, general manager of Microsoft Data Center Services, the group within Microsoft Global Foundation Services that designs, builds and manages the company's many data centers. At that time, Microsoft was growing rapidly as more people worldwide were signing on to the company's Web-based services, such as Hotmail e-mail and Messenger instant messaging. The challenge for Microsoft was to build the necessary infrastructure, such as data centers for servers around the world to support the traffic of consumers using these services. Not only would there need to be thousands of such servers, but there would also need to be adequate energy consumption to keep them operating properly at the correct temperature.

"The problem is, with so many servers, how do we know what is going on with each one?" Zhao says. Generally, it is difficult to determine such things as whether the air-conditioning system is functioning correctly, and whether any specific server is operating at a temperature beyond the safe threshold. Most data centers are large—averaging approximately 470,000 square feet in Microsoft's case—with multiple racks of servers. Air-conditioning in each data center is set to ensure that the temperature never rises above a specified level around the servers at any rack in the large room. For every megawatt directed toward powering a data center, Zhao says, another 0.5 to 1 megawatt is consumed in maintaining the proper temperature. Because it's impossible to know the temperature at any one location in the room, most companies simply turn the air conditioning up high.

The Networked Embedded Computing group's mission is to advance sensor technology and energy-efficient computing research; by 2006, the group had already developed wireless sensors. As such, Zhao was excited to learn, later that year, about Manos' issues related to data center temperature control. "We had been working on sensor networks for quite some time, and I thought this [data center application] was a wonderful space for us to apply our research," he says, citing the benefits gained by reducing the amount of energy consumed by a data center. Using sensors to track temperature, he says, "makes sense from the standpoint of the environment, and it makes sense from a business standpoint."

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