July 29, 2016
Challenges in the data center are always at a massive scale. Whereas a small company may need to make a few special accommodations for their in-house data center, a server farm needs to find a way to guarantee that thousands of servers and storage devices stay in operation. They need to account for natural disasters, power surges, power outages, human sabotage, and anything else that might cause an interruption.
Yet, one of the largest challenges, and perhaps the least expected, is cooling. At all hours, the servers and storage devices generate heat. Multiply the heat generated from one server by thousands, and the temperature can quickly rise well beyond 110° in a few minutes. The on-board fans may be helpful on an individual level, but they aren’t nearly enough. Without a concentrated effort on managing the accumulating heat, the equipment is going to fail and perhaps even melt.
In response, data centers have come up with some inventive ways to regulate heat.
Ways To Cool A Data Center
Hot and Cold Aisles:
Shooting cold air haphazardly into the data center is wasteful, so most data centers have adopted a hot and cold aisle strategy. The aisles alternate back and forth between hot and cold, because the data center racks are designed and arranged in a way so that they all expel their heat into the same aisles. Because all the heat then congregates in certain places, it is much easier to place a vent where you know the heat will be and pump that heat outdoors.
Microsoft launched Project Natick to test the viability of a new data center cooling strategy. Their tagline is 50% of us live near the coast. Why doesn’t our data? Project Natick wants to determine how effective it would be to deploy a data center underwater—deep underwater. Deep in the ocean, the water is further from the warming infrared light of the sun, so at certain depths, the water becomes quite cold. Microsoft wants to use that frigid water to cool a data center. From August to November 2015, their prototype vessel, Leona Philpot, was submerged about a kilometer off the coast of the United States with great success.
Alaskan, Norwegian, and Swedish Data Centers
Another strategy to keep the temperatures down is to simply build it in a colder environment. Alaska, Norway, and Sweden all have extremely cold winters that could reach temperatures as low as -40° Fahrenheit. Instead of artificially creating cold air, these data centers can just pump it in from the outdoors and divert it to where it needs to go.
Facebook has been a major investor in these Arctic data centers for several years. They built their server farm outside of a little town called Lulea in Sweden in 2011, and the data center is still in operation. It has been so successful that Facebook announced that they would build a second data center outside of Lulea in 2013.
Up until now, every data center cooling strategy revolved around controlling the temperature of the air around the server, but this last strategy diverges from that format. Instead of changing the air temperature, mineral oil cooling submerges the data center rack in liquid. The liquid captures the heat produced by the rack and expels it through a heat exchanger. The heat from the heat exchanger is then cooled using a warm water-loop and cooling tower.
The mineral oil used in this strategy is a non-toxic, dielectric oil that can have a heat capacity 1200x larger than air. The oil can contain fair more heat without expelling it to surrounding matter.
It’s All about Cost: Ways to Cool a Data Center
While you could rig up a dozen industrial sized air conditioners and constantly blast cold air into the data center, this would be extremely expensive. The challenge of cooling a data center mostly has to do with cooling it efficiently, rather than effectively. When you consider how much of a data center’s operating costs are directly related to cooling, the opportunities for savings are immense. There is a huge incentive to cool the data center as efficiently as possible.
That challenge and drive for efficiency lead to the outside-the box thinking we see in data centers around the globe.
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