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IT leaders pursue data centre innovation to beat the heat

John Moore | April 3, 2014
New recommendations for ideal data centre temperature and humidity ranges are leading companies building data centres to pursue a variety of cooling and efficiency strategies.

The perennial data centre quest to beat the heat has sparked a wave of innovation in enterprise computing.

Densely packed computing facilities produce a lot of heat. Getting rid of it is a must for boosting the reliability of computing and communications gear. The trick is keeping things cool without running up utility bills and expanding the carbon footprint.

To that end, IT managers have an expanding list of options and measures to consider. Data centres may combine straightforward approaches (such as organising centers into cold and hot aisles) with more elaborate components (such as cooling towers). Even water-cooled computers, once a staple of the mainframe world, appear to be making a comeback. Immersion cooling, in which servers are bathed in a nonconductive cooling fluid, has made an appearance in a few data centers.

"People are tackling this problem in every possible direction you can imagine," says Chris Sedore, CIO and associate vice chancellor for academic operations at Syracuse University.

Ingenuity in cooling is born of necessity, but the array of choices, in part, stems from greater tolerances for heat and humidity in data centers. In previous decades, data centers had tightly controlled climates, with temperate set points of 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and narrow humidity ranges, Sedore says. But the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which sets de facto standards for data center climate, has pushed the high end of its recommended temperature range to 80.6° F and increased the peak humidity threshold as well.

Sedore says ASHRAE's opening of the temperature and humidity window has influenced manufacturers to expand the climate range in which their machines can be expected to operate. The shift has also enabled data centers to use more cooling methods.

Some organisations have adopted evaporative cooling, for example. It would have been difficult for a data center to hit 68° F with just evaporative cooling, Sedore says, but the greater climate tolerance makes such techniques possible. "There is much more opportunity to take an approach like that."

Evaporative Cooling Helps Data Centers Save Energy

REI, a $2 billion retail co-op with headquarters near Seattle, Wash., employed evaporative cooling (among other approaches) in a data center retrofit it completed in late 2013. The project supported the company's objectives of conserving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

From a business perspective, the project saved a sufficient amount of energy to power six stores for a year. REI opens five to eight stores each year, so the project contributes to the company's expansion. "We save enough energy to keep on growing the company for another year," says Kirk Myers, corporate social responsibility manager at REI.


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