How Alibaba Cloud’s data center will run on clean energy by 2030

Alibaba Cloud is poised to meet its carbon reduction targets as it upgrades server-storing data centers around the world, according to a scientist on the project.

Alibaba Cloud, the cloud computing arm of Alibaba Group, aims to have its global data centers running entirely on clean energy by 2030.

“Eco-friendly data centers are critical to Alibaba’s sustainable operations,” says Alibaba Cloud Infrastructure’s Internet Data Center Division general manager Shanyuan Gao.

“In our Hangzhou data centre, server clusters are submerged in specialised liquid coolant, which quickly chills the IT hardware,” Gao explained.

The cloud computing division employs green technologies in these facilities, of which liquid cooling and renewable electricity storage make the biggest difference in reducing carbon emissions.

Alibaba Cloud’s Zhangbei data center employs the same method. Alibaba says it is the first facility in China to use heat-pump technology.

Rising to the challenge
While clean energy solves many issues, its usage brings its own set of challenges. The energy supply from solar and wind sources can be fickle, delivering full power when the weather is fair and windy but failing to produce when conditions change.

The exact location of some data centers is also a concern. Alibaba Cloud is leveraging the environment, erecting facilities in places like Ulanqab in Inner Mongolia, where temperatures regularly drop to -22° Celsius.

“We are looking at carbon management tools to help us better take advantage of energy trading schemes while also planning a more stable energy supply,” Gao said.

According to Gao, the data center uses a free-air cooling system that does not require additional machine-powered cooling for 10 months of the year.

From the inside out
A data center is only as efficient as its server chips allow. Alibaba launched its first proprietary chip, known as Yitian 710, to cut electricity use further.

“The Yitian 710 can accommodate up to 60 billion transistors in each chip,” Gao said, translating into a 50% higher energy efficiency ratio compared with other models.

This will make transitioning to clean energy easier as it reduces demand on unpredictable solar and wind energy sources.

Yitian 710 runs within the company’s self-developed Panjiu servers, which separate computing from storage to better support cloud-native services, like the software behind computer applications that do not use physical servers.

“This allows servers to specialise in AI computing, making large-scale data more cost-effective to deploy,” he added.

The combined strengths of this hardware can also be put to use training and using AI models, which has been an incredibly energy-draining process — until now.

This first appeared in the subscription newsletter CommsWire on 5 August 2022.


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