A Warmer Reception

Data centers are finally seeing ways to chop their operating expenses. It’s about time.

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For years data center operations managers have been complaining that they can no longer cool racks of servers enough to bring them down to the maximum temperature. The increasing density of chips, thinner servers packed more tightly together and the usual current leakage have become so bad that it’s impossible to blow enough cool air through the server cabinets. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where noise of the fans blasting air has exceeded safe working limits.

There are several ways of dealing with this. One is to change from air cooling to water cooling. Water is much more effective at removing heat than air, and some of the newer data centers are being built using this method. IBM now offers a water-cooled option for its largest servers. The downside is that you need plumbing to make this work, limiting the flexibility of moving equipment in and out and raising the possibility of a different kind of very costly data leak. This is why plumbing was replaced by air cooling in the first place.

A second approach is to remove the cabinets entirely and allow air to flow freely through racks of servers. Companies such as Google and Microsoft reportedly have done this in places like the Columbia River Gorge. “Ambient” air, the stuff you blow in from the outside, doesn’t have to be chilled so it’s far less expensive to run these data centers. This is considered one of the greener approaches, and it works especially well in places where there is plenty of cool air and lots of wind. The Columbia River Gorge is a world-class windsurfing spot.

A third approach, and one introduced recently by Dell, is to change the maximum operating temperature of the servers themselves. Considering most of the maximum operating temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit was set decades ago, this is a strategy that has been long overdue for reconsideration. What isn’t known yet is how increased heat will affect the longevity of all components in a data center, but it does raise some interesting questions. If a data center can operate 33 degrees hotter than in the past, then it will require significantly less energy to run the chillers needed to cool the data center. And considering most of these operations are lights-out, anyway, the inconvenience to workers is minimal.

All three of these approaches are viable, and each has its place. Moreover, by combining some or all of these, the costs can be lowered even further. But why exactly did it take more than a decade of complaints and warnings before these solutions began rolling out?