The data center is becoming more efficient, more modular and a whole lot more flexible as it transforms from the static architectures of the past to the virtual, dynamic infrastructure of the future. But part of this bargain calls for increasingly dense hardware footprints and steadily rising utilization rates, and that inevitably leads to heat generation.
Small wonder, then, that even as demand for key hardware elements like servers is declining, the need for advanced cooling systems is on the rise. According to MarketsandMarkets, the data center cooling systems market is on pace to top $8 billion by 2018, up from 2013’s level of about $4.9 billion. Part of this growth is due to the fact that data infrastructure across the board is increasing – more data centers mean more cooling systems. But the industry is also enjoying a renaissance of sorts as new, highly efficient technologies fulfill the need to make existing infrastructure more energy efficient. As the “do more with less” mantra takes hold, one of the most significant cost-saving measures available to the enterprise is new, highly efficient cooling infrastructure.
A key example is online retailer REI, which over the years saw its relatively small data infrastructure balloon into a sprawling 6,000-square-foot hydra in which even the company’s IT executives could not adequately track power consumption and efficiency. After a thorough analysis by CLEAResult of Austin, Texas, the company installed a rooftop evaporation system that relies on free cooling and other techniques to allow for increased data loads without blowing the operating budget. At the same time, the company deployed new backup battery banks, an improved distribution system, hot/cold aisle hardware configurations and a reworked subfloor cabling system to increase energy efficiency without the expense of a forklift upgrade. The company now reports a 93 percent reduction in cooling costs.
Tales of advanced power and cooling systems employing everything from hydroelectric and geothermal energy to Arctic seawater abound in the trade press, but the fact is that for most of the industry, greater energy efficiency will come from improvements to tried-and-true technology. RnRMarketResearch.com reports that the vast majority of data center cooling activity will surround simple air-conditioning. To be sure, there is a wide variety of rack-level solutions, advanced power management platforms and various service level offerings, but with most organizations having to serve the twin masters of energy efficiency and continuity/reliability, demand for more efficient versions of traditional technology will remain strong for the rest of the decade at least.
Of course, all bets are off when it comes to building new infrastructure. While many showcase facilities are going up in cold climes like Iceland and Norway, or even in dry areas like the American southwest (a key element of cooling, after all, is lowering the humidity), some groups are championing the idea of “industrial symbiosis” as a means to greater energy efficiency. A company called TeraCool, for example, wants to locate data centers next to liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants so they can take advantage of the excess energy in the vaporization process needed to turn natural gas from its liquid transportable version back to gas for pipeline transmission. At the same time, the LNG facility can utilize the waste heat from the data center to power the vaporization process. The company has developed a heat exchange refrigeration loop system that is said to be 90 percent efficient and provides cool water or glycol to data facilities while generating 10 MW or more of clean electricity upon evaporation.
It seems, then, that data center energy efficiency will feature a mixed bag of old and new technologies, with IT under constant pressure to walk a number of fine lines between increased performance, lower operating costs, continuity, reliability and a host of other factors. In this environment, there are countless ways to get it right and equally countless ways to get it wrong.
But as long as your energy costs are on the decline, you’re probably on the right track.