Growing GreenBy Marta Bright
Organizations are managing more information, reducing fuel consumption, and developing clean energy with Oracle technology.
What does "going green" mean to organizations that must handle more information than ever before? Developing the next generation of clean energy production? Hoisting solar panels onto the roof? Rethinking the design of the data center? Server virtualization?
"Embracing green practices involves a little bit of all these things," says Nigel Montgomery, research director at AMR Research. Two organizations—one involved in energy research, the other in energy supply—are using Oracle technology in different ways to achieve the same goal: improving the world's environmental health.
Keeping a Safe Yet Efficient Distance
Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) provides power to 15 million people scattered throughout 70,000 urban and rural square miles of Northern and Central California. Delivering energy around the clock to its customers is a balancing act that has the utility purchasing, generating, distributing, renewing, and reducing the outflow of energy when customer demand peaks and power grids become overtaxed. To do this better, PG&E is spending nearly US$1 billion in enhanced demand response and energy efficiency programs. The utility hopes that this effort, the largest IT project in the company's history, will challenge customer thinking and behavior.
One of PG&E's premier efforts, the SmartMeter program, is a usage-monitoring plan that eventually will reach across the company's entire service territory and give customers detailed rate and usage information that will help them understand, manage, and reduce their gas and electric consumption. "Over the next five years, we'll have computer modules on literally every meter," says Eugene Park, PG&E's senior director of application services. "This will alter a once-a-month customer relationship to a once-an-hour—potentially once-every-15-minute—relationship."
The benefit is instant information that's gathered, analyzed, and then sent back to customers (possibly by e-mail or cell phone alerts) as a reminder to, for instance, run their washing machines and vacuum cleaners after 7 p.m. when demand and prices are lower. "SmartMeter technology helps us show customers exactly when and how they can save money and energy by backing off usage during peak hours," says Park.
As PG&E expands the SmartMeter program, the utility will also be phasing out onsite meter readers, which means fewer carbon-producing company vehicles out on the roads. "In addition to regular readings, if customers want to stop or start service, SmartMeter technology will enable us to operate remotely instead of having somebody drive out there to reconnect service," says Park.
The SmartMeter program started gaining traction in 2005 when PG&E wanted to enhance its customer care and billing system, which produces 350,000 bills and processes US$60 million in payments each day. "We needed a substantial upgrade," says PG&E IT Director Alain Erdozaincy. At the time, the utility was using an IBM DB2 database operating on a mainframe, which PG&E needed to leave behind.
"We knew we needed to support the data growth created by the SmartMeter program, so we worked with Oracle on creating a scalable clustered configuration," says Erdozaincy. PG&E now depends on the Oracle technology stack—including Oracle Database, Oracle Real Application Clusters (Oracle RAC), and Oracle Grid Control—to run its data center.
With Oracle RAC, the utility can use smaller, more-efficient servers that offer excellent performance and scalability while handling 720 times the amount of data, according to Park. "Much of what we've accomplished we attribute specifically to Oracle RAC. Instead of scaling up a massive mainframe, we've distributed across smaller, more energy-efficient systems," he says.
That approach makes sense to AMR Research's Montgomery. "If you're using processing time, you're using energy," he says. "Energy costs money, so if you can increase efficiencies and reduce processing time, the savings can be put to better use—focusing on other IT- or non-IT-related activities such as improving energy consumption in other parts of the business."
PG&E also offers a variety of programs that will reward corporate customers for adopting server virtualization/consolidation along with other improvements such as enhanced airflow control systems and more-efficient data storage.
Still Waters, Deep Energy
Generating power from nuclear fusion could become one way to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint. "Thermonuclear fusion is the gold standard of clean-energy-related technologies," says Edward Moses, principal associate director, National Ignition Facility & Photon Science (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "People might not be completely knowledgeable about how fusion works at this time, but it may be the solution to the growing clean-energy production challenges that we are all deeply concerned about," he says.
Scientists and engineers at NIF are using extremely powerful lasers to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion. By squeezing isotopes of hydrogen atoms to intensely high pressures and temperatures similar to those that exist at the center of the sun, they hope to create more energy than what was put into the system. The laser system—which at full capacity will fire 192 beams—uses up to 60 instruments such as cameras and oscilloscopes to measure the results of running an experiment. (This work was performed under the auspices of the Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC [LLNS], under Contract No. DE-AC52-07NA27344.)
"Even with all of this interplay of instrumentation, an experiment is over in less than a millionth of a second; in fact, most of the data is taken in a few billionths of a second. What we're left with are almost unimaginable amounts of data that have to land in our Oracle Database and be analyzed within 30 minutes," says Tim Frazier, NIF applications director, who is responsible for managing scientific data.
To manage its business as well as its science, NIF runs Oracle Database 11g with Oracle RAC, Oracle Application Server, and the Oracle content management framework. "We use Oracle in all areas of the business, from construction planning and budgeting down to the database-driven laser control system," says Frazier.
With just a 30-minute window of time in which to capture and store massive amounts of image-based data, the performance of Oracle Database 11g—and its Oracle SecureFiles feature—is critical. "If we don't have a high-performance method for saving images into the database, the instruments may time out, and we'll lose data," Frazier explains. "When we're in full operation, we'll generate hundreds of terabytes each year, which means that the compression feature of [Oracle] SecureFiles will also play a critical role in helping us economically manage all of the associated storage."
As for year-over-year data growth, according to Frazier, the intention is to keep all experimental data and the results of analysis available for instant retrieval throughout the lifetime of the facility, which is approximately 30 years. "Add to that all of the metadata that accompanies our experimental data, and in just a three- or four-year time frame, we could easily reach the multipetabyte level," he says.
The analytic phase of fusion experiments is driven by a series of Oracle BPEL workflows that perform tasks such as shot scheduling, supervising and coordinating the schedule and flow of shot data analysis, maintaining the requisite models for analytical functions, and providing data services for the modules. Oracle BPEL Process Analytics provides a user interface that allows scientists and engineers monitor the analysis process and address anomalies if and when they arise.
"Through the miracle of Einstein's E = mc² , the excess energy produced, which has no carbon waste byproducts associated with it, can be used to generate consumable power," says NIF's Moses. NIF will be the first facility in the world that will have the laser capacity necessary to do this work, although the overall objective of NIF, as a research facility, isn't to generate power. "We want to help engineers and scientists understand how to generate power with fusion energy," Moses says.
The potential benefits are limitless. "Through NIF we can potentially bring about a supply of clean energy that, if tapped, could be used for humanity's benefits far into the future. That's a very exciting possibility," says Moses. "Companies like Oracle are key to succeeding in what many consider humankind's grand challenge mission of clean and plentiful energy."
Marta Bright is a senior editor with Oracle Publishing.