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Google's secret hardware is revealed

April 13, 2009

by Mark Ollig

It was like exposing the person behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, or in this case the wizard behind Google’s curtain.

Google uses hundred’s of thousands of computer file servers – meaning computer file storage devices which connect to a network, like the Internet.

These servers store information and “serves” or “provides” that information to computer users who request access to it.

For example, if you have Google e-mail or Gmail all of your e-mails and attachments are stored within Google file servers.

All the information you see on the Internet is stored someplace within a computing device or server.

Most companies using file computing servers buy them from manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard, Sun, Cisco, Dell, or IBM.

Google announced that it builds its own hardware, in this case, the computer file servers themselves.

But there is one more secret hardware surprise announcement Google reveals.

This never-before-released hardware which Google uses was made public for the first time at its April 1 Google Data Center Energy Summit conference in Mountain View, CA.

This humble columnist was most interested when he watched the video about it.

Ben Jai, Google’s Server platform architect, has designed many of Google’s computer file servers.

April 1, Ben Jai made public one of the newer Google-made servers at this conference before a large audience of tech-savvy folks who must have been drooling all over themselves.

May I have a drum roll please?

Google’s big secret is each computer file server contains its own internal 12-volt battery pack.

Now, that is a surprise!

This battery pack can provide all of the individual file server electrical power requirements in the event of a problem or interruption with the main source of power, which Jai said is 220 volts AC.

I was a little surprised it was a 220 VAC power source, too, but Jai explained this is more efficient and that each file server is plugged into this source.

Google’s file server design on the motherboard (primary circuit board inside the server) makes the proper operating voltage conversions to the computer chip components inside the file server, which is five volts DC (direct current).

It is common knowledge most data centers have their entire racking of file servers connected to single uninterruptible power supply or UPS.

The UPS system contains charged batteries, which will provide power in the event of a commercial or main power supply interruption or failure.

Back in the day, I installed UPS backup power supply units on to many of the telephone systems we installed – as most of today’s data centers do for their computer file servers.

Jai said, about having a separate 12-volt battery inside each server, “This is much cheaper than huge centralized UPS.”

“It was our Manhattan Project,” Jai stated of this arrangement.

Of course, Google has patents on this built-in battery design.

“Building the power supply into the server is cheaper and means costs are matched directly to the number of servers,” added Jai.

When you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of computer file servers or more, power consumption dollars becomes a major factor.

I also like the innovative approach of having separate batteries in each computer file server.

In addition to cost savings, the power is right there; there is no appreciable loss of efficiency because of the distance from a UPS.

Also the redundancy allows each server its own independent source of power to operate from.

Google reports measuring the actual power usage of its servers is greater than 99.9 percent efficient.

Large UPS power supplies have an average efficiency rating of 92 to 95 percent.

The loss of power from a UPS system tied into thousands of servers would be devastating. You would loose all of your processing power if the main UPS fails.

With Google’s design, even if some of the internal 12-volt batteries would fail, you would lose only a very small percentage of total processing power.

One question I have is, “How long do these individual battery packs last?” In the video I watched, Jai said they would last for years, and when they needed to replace a battery, the entire file server would also be replaced.

Google’s computer file server itself is 3.5 inches thick and takes up two units of space on a standard server rack. Inside the server there are two processors, two hard drive storage units, and eight memory slots, all mounted on the motherboard.

It was also revealed that Google’s file serving data centers have been assembled out of standard 40-foot shipping “data center containers.” Each of these containers holds 1,160 individual computer file servers.

Jai said Google has been using this shipping container arrangement since 2005.

To see the video of Ben Jai’s 10 minute presentation, go to http://tinyurl.com/dzekkk (YouTube link).

The Bits-blogger reports the “Web Site of The Week” will have more information about Google’s presentation, along with some detailed pictures of the file servers and interesting video from the Google Data Center Efficiency Summit conference.