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Improving data center design with old tools and new approaches

Data center operators likely have a wide range of monitoring and security tools at their disposal to keep operations running smoothly. Robust solutions are an essential part of managing today's complex IT environments, but, as InfoWorld's Matt Prigge recently observed, infrastructure managers may also benefit from using traditional business software like Excel and OpenOffice. The problem is that these tools have become such a critical part of the business side of an organization that expertise is automatically assumed when hiring IT personnel.

"I've met and worked with highly skilled network, server and storage engineers who have only a passing knowledge of Excel and Visio (or their respective OpenOffice equivalents)," Prigge wrote. "Although it may seem a little silly at first, I believe these skills are almost as critical as having a solid understanding of the infrastructure tech you're tasked with maintaining."

A spreadsheet may not be the comprehensive database management solution that IT is looking for, but it can be helpful during the planning phase. Prigge estimated that he spends the first 20 to 30 percent of a project putting information into Excel, for example.

This allows more visibility over resource needs and saves time during the project itself. Finally, once a project is finished, having almost all the information already in a spreadsheet makes documentation easy. There may be a few necessary tweaks to make, but a lot of the work has already been completed and is ready to be cataloged.

Microsoft's data center experiment
Businesses have taken a number of approaches to deal with the data explosion that has been driven by analytics initiatives and new retention mandates. Utilizing solutions such as encryption mitigates extra costs that stem from information breaches, but hardware management solutions and data center design are also important considerations.

Microsoft went beyond typical data center optimization strategies by experimenting with a new source of energy. The facility, which will be located close to Cheyenne, Wyoming, is expected to cost $112 million to build. What makes the center notable is that Microsoft plans to generate 200 kW of electricity using biogas as a power source.

"In general, biogas fuel sources are typically uneconomical to recover and convert to grid energy and are usually flared-off," Sean James, senior research manager for the Microsoft Data Center team, wrote in a blog post. "By capturing and reusing biogas on premise with our data centers, we will be able to significantly reduce their carbon emissions while producing beneficial uses at the same time. This project will study new methods for providing a stable, clean, scalable, and economically efficient power source for data centers that could become a best practice for use by other industries in the future as well."

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