Is Air Cooling Good Enough for Modular Infrastructure?

Arthur Cole
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Top Trends Driving the Data Center in 2015

It’s been said that if you want to go cloud, you must go modular, and both the enterprise and the rising tide of cloud providers seem to be taking this axiom to heart.

But with increased modularity comes increased density and, by extension, greater heat generation. So as data loads rise, are we in danger of developing over-reliance on a technology that may not be able to withstand its own heat generation in a few short years?

According to MarketsAndMarkets, the modular data center market is on pace to top $26 billion by 2019, nearly four times the current value and representing nearly 32 percent compound annual growth for the time period. Key drivers include all the usual suspects like speed of deployment, energy savings and resource optimization, although some organizations are reporting difficulty finding space for modular configurations at legacy data sites. In all, however, robust growth is expected across all regions of the globe, particularly in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, which are not as heavily reliant on legacy bricks-and-mortar facilities.

When it comes to cooling modular infrastructure, the news so far is quite good. Current deployments match up pretty well against legacy systems when outfitted with advanced Airflow Management (AFM) technologies, says Upsite Technologies. And because of modular’s faster implementation and streamlined integration advantages, it actually produces a better overall ROI compared to traditional systems. The company examined a number of air handling techniques across inlet, mid- and end-of-aisle solutions and variable CRAH fan power settings, all of which can be used to optimize both legacy and newly built modular infrastructure.

Changes to the modular components themselves can also benefit cooling and other operating conditions. Vapor IO has devised a cylindrical system that houses multiple blades in a nine-foot tube that is said to optimize airflow from a single fan system, and in fact allows for greater temperature control to accommodate variable data requirements. In this way, modular systems can not only handle the bulk processing of Big Data and other emerging applications but the increasingly diverse requirements of higher-order processes. The modules are governed by the company’s CORE (Core Operating Runtime Environment) software that provides open APIs to govern scale, efficiency, power consumption and other facets of the work environment.

Data Center

And a company called Excool recently adapted its adiabatic cooling solution to modular infrastructure that can scale from 200 kW installations to more the 4 MW. The Excool Space is built around 40-rack modules and is said to deliver a PUE of 1.15 even under low-utilization scenarios. The cooling system involves a series of heat exchangers and specially designed adiabatic sprays that engender a highly efficient heat transfer between cool outside air and hot air from the racks without comingling the two. In this way, cooling is enabled without exposing sensitive devices to pollutants, moisture, salt and other contaminants. The steel enclosures can accommodate multiple rack designs and power solutions from Schneider-APC and others, and can deliver Tier 1-4 uptime compliance.

Meanwhile, many firms are employing liquid cooling solutions for modular infrastructure, which are said to be more efficient and less energy intensive – water and dielectric solutions being more heat conductive than air – but these often come with greater complexity and cost. As well, the enterprise industry has long relied on air-cooling for legacy environments and is likely to leverage that experience in modular settings provided it can get the job done as density increases.

Ultimately, as abstract architectures assume greater responsibility for data and application optimization, decisions regarding hardware will fall largely to cost, both in public and private cloud infrastructure. If modular solutions can get the job done with plain old air, it will probably become the go-to solution for rapid capacity expansion.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.

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