King of Cool

Chandrakant Patel (B.S.'83 ME), a native of Gujarat, India, is director of the 'Cool Team' at Hewlett-Packard, researching ways to prevent chips, computers and data centers from overheating. Photo credit: Courtesy Hewlett-Packard Chandrakant Patel (B.S.'83 ME), a native of Gujarat, India, is director of the 'Cool Team' at Hewlett-Packard, researching ways to prevent chips, computers and data centers from overheating. (Photo by Courtesy Hewlett-Packard.)As a student, Chandrakant Patel (B.S.’83 ME) rode the bus every day from the low-income Graystone Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, where he lived, to the verdant UC Berkeley campus, where he studied. Today, a lot has changed for Patel, now a fellow at HP Laboratories in Palo Alto, leading the charge to develop a new generation of energy-efficient data centers.

Patel left his home in India at age 18, bound for the United States and UC Berkeley. He couldn’t be sure he’d get into Cal but, Patel says, he ran on instinct and youthful optimism.

“Berkeley was famous for world-renowned books by professors like Egor Popov,” he says. “The fact that I could be in one of these classes gave me a sense of great anticipation.”

To save money, he went first to Medford, Oregon, where his sister lived. He worked the lumber mills, even delivered paper towels and sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Then a family friend in San Francisco offered him a room at the Graystone in what, at the time, was one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. His room was about 12 feet by 10 feet, with a sink and a bookshelf. He lived there throughout his four-year college career and even worked as the hotel’s weekend manager.

“I was more concerned with the big picture,” he says. “I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: awesome climate, great school, stunning vistas. Where I stayed overnight was not meaningful.”

He first enrolled at San Francisco’s City College, a community college, and followed instructions in the course catalog detailing the path to Berkeley. “I still have that catalog and I still have the page marked,” he says.

After two years, Patel was enrolled at Cal and had saved $1,000, enough to cover tuition and buy books. He even got a job as research aide in mechanical engineering professor George Johnson’s lab for $300 a month. In 1983, Patel joined Memorex, where he worked in the Large Disc Division while attending San Jose State University part-time to earn his master’s degree. In 1987, he landed a job at Hewlett-Packard, where he has been ever since.

Patel’s work at HP initially involved mass storage design, but in the 1990s his interests went cold. Literally. He established a thermal technology research group and a virtual community he called the HP Cool Team to investigate issues surrounding heat, namely, how to prevent overheating in chips, computers and, now, data centers. Data centers are essentially big rooms filled with row upon row of racks, each one containing scores of computers that consume power and produce heat, which takes energy to remove.

“Imagine a room with 100 racks using 10 kilowatts each. That’s one megawatt per room,” Patel explains. “With a cooling system using a megawatt of its own, that’s two megawatts per room. Say there are 3,000 data centers in the world, that’s six gigawatts, or 20 million metric tons of coal per year to run all those centers. That gives you the magnitude of global resources required to run these rooms.”

While most data centers are grossly over-provisioned—on full power all the time and kept bone-chillingly cold no matter what—Patel hopes his work on HP’s recently launched dynamic “smart” cooling system for data centers can reduce energy needs by half. The system incorporates sensors on the racks, so air conditioning kicks in only when and where it’s needed, the far right corner of the room, say, where dozens of computers are cranking. He is also directing HP’s new Sustainable IT Ecosystem Laboratory, which has a project underway with UC Berkeley’s mechanical engineering professor Van Carey to develop the Lifetime Exergy Advisor, a tool that assesses the total environmental impact (from extraction to shipping to operation and recycling) of using different materials and techniques.

Patel has come a long way from the Tenderloin. But he hasn’t forgotten the early days. In support of the community college system that served him so well, he taught on weekends at Chabot College in Hayward for more than 16 years. He also taught at UC Berkeley Extension and continues to teach at San Jose State University. And he still takes AC Transit to work every day.

“It’s a great environment for reading,” he says, “and with Wi-Fi on the bus, I can go through my email or keep an eye on a data center in India.”

For more on Patel’s work on data centers, see last month’s New York Times story.