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The EU’s plan for data centres: Reduce energy usage by replacing copper with fibre

Data centres are big and costly. Engineers all over the world are working hard at making servers and networking more efficient. Processors are using less power, cooling is getting easier, and even routers are reducing their footprint.

Sadly, data centres are still using a gigantic amount of power, so the European Union is funding a trend away from traditional electrical data connections. Headed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, project PhoxTroT aims to reduce power consumption by using light-based data connections, while at the same time increasing transfer speeds to two terabits per second (Tbps).

An article from Fraunhofer explains that this four year project isn’t about reinventing the wheel – optical data transfer is already used around the world. Instead, PhoxTroT will be focused on taking existing technologies, combining them, and refining them into a system that will save money and use less energy while doubling connection speeds.

The article says: “They will realise the optical transmission on a printed circuit board (‘on-board’), ‘board-to-board’ and also ‘rack-to-rack’. By combining these interfaces, it will also be possible to bridge longer distances within the foreseeable future.”

This isn’t just a dolled-up fibre optic cable – this is taking the technology to the next level by integrating light-based data transfer throughout entire data centres on the individual server level, while increasing the effective range to hundreds of kilometres.

Not only is optical networking more power efficient and faster than its copper counterpart, but it’s also more robust in the face of disaster. After Hurricane Sandy took out a non-trivial amount of communications on the east coast of the United States, telcos went through and replaced copper lines with fibre optic cables to update their network speeds and reliability. Electrical data transfer via typical coaxial and Ethernet cables still has a place, but it is slowly being overtaken in usefulness by optical data transfer. If PhoxTroT is a success, copper wiring will become even more of a niche.

With over £7 million invested by the European Union, and eighteen different companies working together over the next four years, PhoxTroT can transform the data centre into a much more eco-friendly and cost effective endeavour.

Google’s data centres alone draw 260 million Watts continuously. In 2011, a single Amazon data centre drew 8 million Watts continuously. Worldwide, data centres account for around 30 billion Watts – a few per cent of the world’s total power usage.

If these engineers can double the data throughput while using a small fraction of the power traditional networking uses, we’re talking savings of tens of millions per data centre. The EU should be applauded for its efforts, and other countries and organisations should take a page out of its handbook in this instance. We’re saving money and saving the planet one data centre at a time.

Image Credit: Adrienne Serra