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Novel way to cool data centers passes first test

By James Niccolai
September 10, 2009 07:53 PM ET

IDG News Service - A team of engineers led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has successfully tested a novel system that they say could greatly improve the efficiency of data center cooling.

It's an important area for data center operators, who are struggling with the escalating costs of cooling increasingly powerful server equipment. Some facilities have been unable to add new equipment because they have reached the limit of their power and cooling capacity.

By some estimates, the energy used to cool IT systems accounts for nearly half the cost of running a data center. The amount of energy consumed by data centers in the U.S. doubled between 2000 and 2006, and could double again by 2011 if practices aren't improved, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Server equipment in data centers needs to be kept within a certain temperature range. Hardware can fail if it is too warm, but overcooling wastes energy. Still, most data centers err on the side of caution and cool their equipment more than they need to.

The Lawrence Berkeley engineers, working with Intel, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Emerson Network Power, have been experimenting with a way to deliver just the right amount of cooling to computing equipment.

They fed temperature readings from sensors that are built into most modern servers directly into the data-center building controls, allowing the air conditioning system to keep the facility at just the right temperature to cool the servers.

It's a simple idea but something that hadn't been achieved before. IT and facilities management systems have historically been managed separately. Computer Room Air Handlers, or CRAH units -- basically large air conditioners -- are most often controlled using temperature sensors located on or near the CRAH air inlets.

That's the way 76 percent of data centers do it, according to an end-user study cited in a white paper about the experiment. Eleven percent of data centers place the sensors in the cold aisles between the server racks, which is better but still not ideal.

Linking the IT equipment directly to the cooling systems represents "the most fruitful area in improving data center efficiency over the next several years," according to the white paper.

The project has been a success, according to Bill Tschudi, a program manager at Lawrence Berkeley. "The main goal we had was to show that you could do this, that you could use the sensors in the IT equipment to control the building systems, and we achieved that," he said.

The amount of energy saved will vary depending on how efficient a data center is to begin with, he said. He predicted that most data centers would see a return on their investment within a year.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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