Data Center Cooling: Present And Future

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Examine the vital role of data center cooling technologies and how they are charting significant innovation in this industry.

More than three percent of all the electricity in the world is used to run data centers. Consuming high levels of power means that data centers also generate enough heat to damage machines and systems.

As the market for data centers continues to grow, innovation in non-core data center tasks and processes has also taken off. One sub-market that has come a long way is that of data center cooling.

Maintaining the right temperature within data centers requires investment, consistent power, and intelligent design. Traditionally, organizations have used rather energy-inefficient systems to keep their data centers cool. However, increased competition in this segment has rewritten conventions rules regarding data cooling technologies. Let us dive deeper into the world of data center cooling operations to understand existing and upcoming innovations in the industry.

Power Demand, Heating, And Cooling Solutions In Data Centers

Uninterrupted high power is one of the most important requirements for any data center. The power demand of storage equipment and devices is varied and depends on the data center’s scale, location, and design. Most data centers have mechanisms in place to ensure consistent and uninterrupted power supply in the form of batteries or generators. This is done to ensure that the entire system continues to function in the case of power failure. Naturally, as the data center is scaled up, it will demand more power as well.

In addition to running the equipment, data centers consume significant power in maintaining the right temperature and humidity. This is because all machines in a data center generate a considerable amount of heat while running. While most servers and storage devices are equipped with small fans to prevent overheating during usage, when used collectively in a high-density setting, added support to regulate temperature is required.

Running a data center outside the optimum temperature range (roughly 21 to 24℃) will be inefficient, lead to disruptions, and eventually damage machines, storage drives, and servers. Advanced temperature management and monitoring systems have been developed to ensure sufficient cooling within data centers, but most of these technologies usually consume high power.

Thus, environment control is a vital component of running the data center efficiently. Managing the temperature and humidity optimizes the system’s adaptability, scalability, cost, serviceability, and manageability. It also ensures maximum RoI of investment in servers and equipment and further increases the flexibility to respond to changing needs.

There are many mechanisms to ensure that temperature is controlled optimally within data centers; these include expelling the hot air, reducing bypass airflow, submerging equipment in cooling liquids, and directly cooling the processors within servers.

Popular And Upcoming Data Center Cooling Solutions

Traditionally, airflow control has been an integral part of data center cooling solutions. However, today, advanced and innovative technologies are being increasingly developed and deployed. Here is an introduction to some of them:

Hot/Cold Aisle

One of the most commonly used techniques, this involves placing racks of servers in a manner that divides lanes by alternate ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ rows. The cold aisle consists of the cold air intake from the front of the rack, whereas the hot aisle has exhausts and fans placed towards the back of the racks. Containment of hot and cold air using this design can also be undertaken to ensure that the two don’t mix. Both these techniques have their limitations and might not work as efficiently in the case of large-scale and high-density data centers.

In-Rack Cooling

Another popular method is to focus the coolant directly onto server racks instead of the entire data center to prevent the hot air from escaping into the room. Compressors and air chillers are fit inside racks, and they transfer heat outside without it heating the air in the data center. This setup is usually more complex than others and doesn’t work very well in high-density data centers. Another variant of this method is underfloor cooling, wherein cold air is subjected underneath the floor of the data center to let servers remain cool.

Using External Weather Or Water Bodies

The use of naturally cool air, water, or elevation has been used extensively in data center cooling solutions. Many companies choose the location of their servers just so that they can make the most of natural climatic conditions. Using fresh air is often dubbed as ‘free cooling’ because no power is used in cooling fresh air. However, fans and compressors are required to circulate and pump air throughout the center. Naturally, the Nordic countries are a favorable location for such data centers.

Similarly, natural water bodies can be used as heatsinks to reduce the need for coolants. Naturally colder water is used to exchange the hot air of servers with cooler air. Both these methods are bound by location limitations and high upfront setup costs.

Liquid And Immersion-Based Cooling

More recently, the hardware used in data centers is being submerged in cooling dielectric fluids that are non-conductive and non-flammable. In the past few years, the cost and maintenance of such technologies have reduced significantly, and concerns regarding their effectiveness have also been satisfactorily addressed.

Liquid-based cooling solutions are slowly becoming the norm due to their higher efficiency, lower power consumption, and ease of scalability. An added advantage is that lower contaminants and condensation are prevalent in liquid-based cooling systems. The hardware can be directly immersed in the liquid or be put in protective cases to have indirect contact with the cooling fluid.

Direct-To-Chip Cooling

Another way to use liquid-based coolants is through the direct-to-chip cooling technique. Gaining a steady adoption in the past few years, this method uses pipes to expose components like processors and motherboards to coolants directly. The heat that is extracted is transported outside the data center or fed into a chilling loop. Targeted cooling results in lesser power consumption and higher efficiency of this technique, which has made it a preferred choice by many organizations.

Based On Renewable Energy Sources

Taking cognizance of the pressing environmental challenges that we face today, many organizations are exploring sustainable ways to cool their data centers using renewable energy sources. One prominent example is the use of geothermal energy to create a heat sink in the land around the data center to naturally lower temperatures. Similarly, the exploration of developing data centers in deep water is being conducted by Microsoft as well. While being sparsely used today, these solutions are bound to gain momentum in the near future as organizations look to reduce their carbon impact and implement sustainable practices.

There are several other commonly-used and upcoming technologies, like calibrated vector cooling, evaporative cooling, and raised floors.

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