Engineers Connect Server Sensors to Cooling System

An engineering team led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has successfully tested a novel system that could greatly improve the efficiency of data center cooling.

Most data centers err on the side of caution and cool their equipment more than they need to, thus wasting energy and money. But Lawrence Berkeley engineers, working with Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Emerson Network Power, are 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 so the air conditioning system could keep the facility at the optimal temperature to cool the servers.

It's a simple idea, but something that no one had succeeded in doing before, mostly because IT and facilities management systems have historically been kept separate. The researchers wrote software to bridge the protocol gap between the two systems.

Computer room air handlers, or CRAH units -- basically, large air conditioners -- are usually controlled via temperature sensors located on or near the CRAH air inlets. That's how 76% of data centers do it, according to a research paper about the experiment. The paper says 11% of data centers place the sensors in the cold aisles between the server racks, which is better but still not ideal.

Linking servers directly to the cooling systems represents "the most fruitful area in improving data center efficiency over the next several years," the paper says.

The energy savings will vary, but Bill Tschudi, a program manager at Lawrence Berkeley, predicts that most data centers would see a return on their investment within a year.

The study found that 90% of data centers are at least 5 degrees Celsius cooler than recommended. "There's this idea that the best data center is a cool data center, but what we've found is that it's safe to run them a little bit warmer," says Allyson Klein, a manager in Intel's server platform group.

This version of this story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition. It's an edited version of an article that first ran on Computerworld.com.

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