Here Comes the Sun

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2008-01-30

For a relatively small data center operation, Affordable Internet Services Online boasts a rather eclectic customer base.

Situated in Romoland, Calif., amid the rolling hills of Riverside County, the company hosts Web sites from Sweden, Kenya, the United Kingdom, France, Austria, New Zealandand Australia. Clients range from personal Web sites and small businesses to large corporations. What could they have in common? These varied customers share a desire to have their sites—and their reputations—associated with what may be the world’s greenest data center.

Unlike most data centers, which are voracious energy consumers, AISO pays nothing for its electricity. The facility—its servers, cooling systems, even the owners’ residence next door—gets all its power from an array of solar panels.

“We initially did this because we thought it was the right thing to do,” says Phil Nail, who founded the company with his wife, Sherry, in 1997. “It wasn’t exactly part of a business plan to attract customers. But we found that companies from all over the world have been drawn to us. They want their customers to know that their Web sites are powered by solar energy.”

Prior to 1997, the Nails ran a small awning manufacturing business, but when the Internet revolution went into full swing, they decided to try something new. Despite having little IT experience, the couple decided to go into the Web site hosting business.

“At that time I couldn’t even install the software needed to run the first server we bought,” he says. That’s how Nail met his current network administrator, Steven Craig. Nail ran into Craig, who was just 15 at the time, at the local bowling alley. Craig told him he knew how to get his server up and running.

Nail housed that first server in a co-location facility 400 miles away in Sacramento, but eventually decided to try hosting the server himself.

He flew to Sacramento, picked up his server, strapped it onto the airplane seat next to him, and brought it home. “My customers’ sites were down for a few hours that day, but no one complained,” he says. Nail had a T1 line installed at his house, plugged in the server and became a data center operator.

Today the company boasts some 15,000 clients, and Nail’s daughter, Jennifer, has joined the operation.

In 2001, Nail decided to take another gamble. Faced with increasing energy costs and an understanding that data centers were gobbling up electricity across the country, he began looking into how he could make the business more efficient. He initially considered windmills, but determined the winds weren’t consistent enough around Romoland. Instead, he decided to make use of what was abundant in the desert-like climate—sunshine.

Solar Panels

At a cost of about $100,000, Nail installed 120 solar panels—60 on each side of the data center. The panels face south and generate about 12 kilowatts of electricity. Power from the panels is converted from DC to AC and then stored in a battery bank. The batteries, in turn,  power the data center, AISO’s offices and air conditioning, as well as the Nails’ home. In case of emergency, AISO can fire up natural gas-powered generators or tap into the power grid.

But that’s only the start of Nail’s green ideas. Lighting for the center during the day is provided by solar tubes installed on the roof. Nail estimates each tube, which requires less space than a conventional skylight, replaces the equivalent of about 300 watts of light. Initially, he installed compact fluorescent lightbulbs throughout the building, but has since gone to even more efficient LED lights. The center’s walls are more than 12 inches thick and filled with insulation consisting of recycled materials. As a result, the building stays naturally cool in the Californiasun and the need for air conditioning is minimized. Nail also installed an underground tank to store used drain water for outdoor landscaping use.

And he has more bright ideas in mind. At press time, work was set to begin installation of a green roof on the data center. Essentially, a four-inch layer of dirt will be laid down and drought-resistant greenery will be planted. The green roof should further cut down on the need for air conditioning, but when the air conditioning units do run, water generated by the units will be recycled to feed the plants on the roof.

“Every day we come up with new ideas of things we’d like to do,” says Nail. “It’s been a really exciting and rewarding time for us.”

AISO’s energy conservation efforts haven’t been restricted to physical elements. A year ago, the company implemented virtualization technology from VMware, of Palo Alto, Calif.With it, Nail was able to replace about 150 servers with five IBMxSeries servers. Nail says he was initially skeptical about server virtualization, but the implementation has gone smoothly and he can’t argue with the results. Power consumption has been reduced by 60 percent.

The bottom line, adds Nail, is that the data center has been able to grow its customer base at a rate of about 20 percent annually, without adding more solar panels. And AISO no longer pays a $3,000 monthly power bill.

Many of AISO’s customers, such as Endangered Species Chocolate and MacGillivray Freeman Films, producer of films for IMAXtheatres, display the AISO logo on their Web sites, promoting the fact that their sites are 100 percent solar powered. AISO’s green strategy also helped it win a contract last July to host the online portion of the high-profile Live Earth concert, which was held to raise awareness of climate change.

Climate Savers Computing, an industry-sponsored initiative that encourages companies to adopt more energy-efficient computers and power-management tools, recently decided to move its Web site to AISO. Barbara Grimes, a spokesperson for the organization, says it made sense to use AISO, given the initiative’s goals. “We saw this as a simple change that we could make to reduce our carbon footprint,” she says. “As far as cost is concerned, we’re paying the exact same amount as [we were paying] our previous provider.”

Despite AISO’s humble beginnings, Nail is becoming a celebrity in the data center business. IBMand microprocessor manufacturer Advanced Micro Devices feature AISO prominently in campaigns to promote their energy-efficient offerings.

Success is creating a challenge for AISO, however. Even with virtualization technology, the data center will soon require more power than its 120 solar panels can provide. As a result, Nail has begun laying the groundwork to install another 400 solar panels, which will allow the company to quadruple its customer base. The new arrays will also have the ability to track the sun, increasing their daily output.

Nail says he’s preparing for the future—one he’s certain will be bright.

“Every day I’m getting calls from potential customers wanting to know more about our service,” he says. “It just confirms that we’re on the right course.”