Big Data Under the Dome


Oregon Health & Science University's new data center. Image:

Data centers aren’t known for being cool – in fact, most of them are literally quite square. But there’s a cool newcomer on the data center scene that breaks out of the no-frills, four-square box design commonly used in these utilitarian structures. Without a right angle to be seen, this sleek geodesic dome may be the shape of things to come.

The curvy, $22-million computer hut is officially called Data Center West, part of the IT infrastructure at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland. Better known as the Data Dome, it delivers enviable energy efficiency, scalability, and structural integrity through its geodesic architecture.

The center was designed in-house by Perry Gliessman, OHSU’s director of technology services and advanced computing systems. “After being very familiar with how data centers were designed and built, I simply believed there was a better way," Gliessman says. He began drawing up plans in 2010 when the university started pumping big money into its big-data future.

His 18,000-square-foot brainchild went operational on July 1. It houses mission-critical legacy computing systems for OHSU’s hospitals and clinics alongside an expanding array of high-performance computing clusters chugging through petabytes of data generated in OHSU’s genomics and biomedical imaging laboratories. It’s a key enabling technology of OHSU’s aspirations in personalized cancer medicine, where an individual patient’s DNA sequence is used as a roadmap for genetically targeted treatments.

“We need the capability of storing and analyzing that data in ways far beyond traditional technology,” says Dr. Joe Gray. “OHSU's new data center will help us do that.” Gray, whose multiple academic hats include chairing OHSU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and directing a renowned imaging and genomics center, says the project’s impact transcends its distinctive aesthetics. “I believe that projects like this are incredibly important to the future of treating and curing cancer and other diseases.”

The center uses about half of the electricity of a data center with a traditional design. Image:

As the cost of genomic sequencing drops and testing speed increases, research hospitals like OHSU and its Knight Cancer Institute are migrating rapidly toward personalized care. In addition to genomic profiles, patient-derived diagnostic data and ultra-high-resolution cellular images will all live together in a patient’s permanent electronic health record. As more cancer centers begin to collaborate on clinical research, they will begin to share more of these data over the internet. As biomedical data production approaches the exascale (1,000 petaFLOPS, or 1 quintillion floating point operations per second), scientists and engineers are working feverishly to develop powerful algorithms, workflows, and hardware strategies to handle these mind-boggling volumes of data.

Gray’s diverse research is at the core of a technology-development collaboration between OHSU and Intel. Many of the extreme computing tools of that collaboration will live in the new Data Dome in modular towers that can provide power densities of 25 kW per rack. Its current power capacity is 700 kW, but it will one day handle a full capacity of thousands of servers processing 100 petabytes of data at 3.8 MW of computing power.

If you think the Data Dome gets its cool from horsepower alone, think again. Sustainability enthusiasts think the coolest factor of all is that the building needs no air conditioning, heating, ductwork, or exhaust systems to keep computers at optimal temperatures. An evaporative cooling system deploys as back-up when outside temperatures get extreme, but that’s the extent of the HVAC machinery.

The cooling concept is based on the unique airflow patterns possible under a dome. The dome’s large surface area allows about 750,000 cubic feet per minute of airflow. Air enters through large vents near the bottom of the shell, then rises as it warms en route to escape through exit slats near the top. The computing equipment inside is stored in modular pods organized in a hub-spokes-and-wheel design. The layout creates the shortest possible path for distribution of air, fiber-optic cable, and power. Does it work? According to OHSU and Oregon’s green energy advocates, it works big time, scoring a power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating 34% better than reported by all other U.S. data centers this year.

The other chief benefit of the dome structure is stability against weather and natural hazards. Western Oregon’s climate is generally mild with summer highs in the upper 90s and winter lows only infrequently below freezing. Yet when snow does accumulate beyond the typical dusting at high altitudes, all that moist Pacific Northwest air can become extraordinarily heavy on flat roofs. That is not a problem in a dome. The greater threats come from natural phenomena most U.S. data centers don’t much worry about: earthquakes and volcanoes. Seismologists insist that the area, which is in the Cascadia subduction zone, is long overdue for a big quake. Sitting only about an hour south of the continent’s most active volcano, Mount St. Helens, the area is always at risk for unexpected accumulations of ash. The inherent structural stability and curved roofline of a geodesic design is more than enough for such hazards.

As the health care and medical research spheres embrace the challenges of big data, this semispherical facility shows that there can be a lot to gain from cutting corners.

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

After being very familiar with how data centers were designed and built, I simply believed there was a better way.

Perry Gliessman,
data center designer


October 2014

by Michael MacRae,