Data Center Density Hits the Wall

Why the era of packing more servers into the same space may have to end.

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Belady wants equipment to be tougher, but he also thinks servers are more resilient than most administrators realize. He believes that the industry needs to rethink the highly controlled environments that host distributed computing systems today.

The ideal strategy, Belady says, is to develop systems that optimize each rack for a specific power density and manage workloads to ensure that each cabinet hits that number all the time. In this way, both power and cooling resources would be used efficiently, with no waste from under- or overutilization. "If you don't utilize your infrastructure, that's actually a bigger problem from a sustainability standpoint than overutilization," he says.

What's Next

Belady sees a bifurcation coming in the market. High-performance computing will go to liquid cooling, while the rest of the enterprise data center -- and Internet-based data centers like Microsoft's -- will stay with air but move to locations where space and power costs are cheaper so they can scale out.

Paul Prince, chief technology officer of the enterprise product group at Dell Inc., doesn't think most data centers will hit the power-density wall anytime soon. The average power density per rack is still manageable with room air, and he says hot aisle/cold aisle designs and containment systems that create "superaggressive cooling zones" will help data centers keep up. Yes, densities will continue their gradual upward arc. But, he says, it will be incremental. "I don't see it falling off a cliff."

At Industrial Light & Magic, Clark sees a move to liquid, in the form of closely coupled cooling, as inevitable. Clark admits that he and most of his peers are uncomfortable with the idea of bringing liquid into data centers. But he thinks that high-performance facilities will have to adapt.

"We're going to get pushed out of our comfort zone," Clark says. "But we're going to get over that pretty quickly."

This story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an earlier version that first ran on

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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