Lower Power Means More Efficient Cooling

Arthur Cole
Slide Show

Keep Your Cool in the Data Center

The more tightly you pack heat-generating equipment, the more energy you consume trying to cool the air in and around it. An efficient cooling system is a top priority.

Energy shocks over the past decade have apparently made their mark on the enterprise, although the quest to reduce data center consumption has proven to be a bit more arduous that many had hoped.

A new survey from Analytics Press sponsored by The New York Times said worldwide IT energy usage seems to be slowing but not receding, and it still represents an uncomfortably large portion of total energy consumption. The report has worldwide consumption at 1.1 to 1.5 percent of the total, up from 1 percent in 2005, but less than the 2.2 percent that previous growth rates had indicated. In the U.S., enterprise consumption was about 2.2 percent of the total in 2010, while previous trend lines had it on track to hit 3.5 percent.

The report suggests that most of the gain is due to a slowdown of server hardware installations due to virtualization and the recession. If that is the case, then we haven't seen the impact of the new generation of low-power and energy-saving systems hitting the channel. This is particularly true of cooling systems, which generally represent more than half the energy consumption of a typical server farm.

As expected in times of need, cooling technology is drawing a lot of interest from the engineering community and the venture funding sources that serve them. One example is CoolChip Technologies, which has devised a new type of heat sink that the company says represents a 40 percent improvement over existing designs. The system uses a circular aluminum fan that floats directly above the heat conductor on a circuit board. The company is currently working out mass production issues and plans to release a commercial product within the year.

More established firms, however, are taking on the heat issue as well, but not always with better cooling systems. For instance, Dell recently announced a new data center portfolio that can, for a short while at least, operate safely at temperatures as high as 113 degrees F, more than 20 degrees higher than even the most flexible guidelines. Dell says the collection of servers, storage and network devices in the Fresh Air platform can allow some data centers to forgo chillers and other cooling systems by meeting more stringent A3 and A4 classifications by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

Deploying more heat-resistant hardware also helps to reduce reliance on a significant point of failure for many enterprises: cooling infrastructure. As Lloyd's Banking Group in the UK found out last week, loss of cooling is just as bad as the loss of a server farm or storage array, particularly during times of peak business activity. Lloyd's is a relatively small player in international finance, but the effects could be dire indeed if the same outage were to hit one of the major traders at a time when stock markets around the world are roiling.

Data center cooling technology has seen its fair share of development over the past few decades, but by and large it has revolved around the same basic idea of exchanging warm air for cool(er) air. But if the best we can hope for is a reduction in the rate of energy consumption, then perhaps the time is right for some "out-of-the-box" thinking.

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