As medical care becomes increasingly linked to the use of “big data,” the ability to store, retrieve, and analyze such huge amounts of data is becoming increasingly important. Hospitals are increasingly using computer technologies to deliver effective health care, whether it is to analyze an individual’s genetic profile or to do advanced medical imaging.

Anticipating that trend, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), a teaching hospital and research center in Portland, Ore, has built a new data center that will provide the computing power and efficiency needed to support big-data medical care.

The new data center—formally called Data Center West but more often called the Data Dome, after its unusual geodesic dome design—began operating July 1. The $22 million data center is composed of modular pods that can easily accommodate more computer servers as needs increase. At full capacity, the data center could house thousands of servers and hundreds of petabytes of data. A petabyte is one million gigabytes.

The structure includes large air intakes toward the bottom of the building and large air vents toward the top. Within the data center, the “pods” of computer servers are arranged, like a large wagon wheel, in a hub-spoke-and-wheel design. This arrangement provides the “shortest path route” for air, fiber optic, and power distribution.

All of these design elements, says OHSU, will allow the center to predominantly use ambient air for cooling, rather than the air conditioning systems that most data centers use. The result will be a “power usage effectiveness” — or PUE — rating of 1.13. (The ideal PUE rating is 1.0, while the 2014 average for all self-reporting US data centers is 1.7.)

OHSU sees the data center as a crucial element in meeting the future need for big-data-based healthcare. “What we’re trying to do with cancer, for instance, is to understand it at many levels of resolution — to help individual patients and to search for cures,” says Joe Gray, PhD, associate director for translational research at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and director of the OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine. “But the technologies we use to do that generate tremendous amounts of data. We need the capability of storing and analyzing that data in ways far beyond traditional technology. OHSU’s new data center will help us do that. I believe that projects like this are incredibly important to the future of treating and curing cancer—and other diseases.”