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Colo vendors, MSPs explore new data center cooling methods

Unconventional cooling methods, such as evaporative cooling and data center liquid cooling, provide alternatives to traditional computer room air conditioning systems.

Data center equipment is reaching a transition point: Vendors have been shrinking components down to smaller form factors while increasing their power. The task of keeping such systems cool has become a challenge, but alternative data center cooling methods have emerged to address the issue.

"With data volumes rising, air is no longer enough to cool data center equipment, a change that is opening the door to new cooling approaches," noted Henrique Cecci, a research director at Gartner.

Air conditioning has never been an efficient cooling option. The growing data volumes force businesses to increase the size and strength of their fans and cooling systems, which raises their equipment and energy costs.

Also, these systems now are running into scaling barriers. Air systems cannot expand enough to cost-effectively cool racks with 16 kilowatts to 20 kilowatts of electricity, according to Gartner's Cecci. hyperscale data centers are now approaching and in some cases exceeding those numbers.

New data center cooling methods

In response, new opportunities emerged for channel partners. DigiPlex, a data center colocation and managed services company with about 65 employees, markets to companies, such as retailers, with high-end system needs. The company operates four data centers in the Nordic region and chose that location because of its climate. The area is conducive to evaporative cooling, one technique to reduce data center temperatures. With evaporative cooling, air is funneled across wet pads or filters, excess heat dissipates in the water, and cooler air is funneled back into the data center.

While beneficial, the technique creates new challenges. The data center specialist wants to use renewables as much as possible. "Rain water is dirty," noted Geoff Fox, DigiPlex's chief innovation and engineering officer. The company worked with Munters, a Swedish company that makes evaporative cooling systems, to purify water used in its sites.

In the U.S., Green House Data, a managed service provider founded in 2007, has also focused on building energy efficient data centers. The company, which relies solely on wind power to generate energy, constructed an evaporative cooling data center in Cheyenne, Wyo., and claims it has an average power usage effectiveness of 1.14.

Data center cooling chart
Alternative data center cooling methods

Data center liquid cooling

While evaporative cooling has potential, using liquids to directly cool equipment is much more efficient than relying on air and evaporation. "Every major industrial process uses water to cool because it is thermally efficient," said Jim Connaughton, CEO at Nautilus Data Technologies, another company experimenting with new data center cooling methods. Water is between 50 and 1,000 times better at removing heat than air.

With data volumes rising, air is no longer enough to cool data center equipment, a change that is opening the door to new cooling approaches.
Henrique Cecciresearch director, Gartner

While water has been available as a cooling conduit for decades, the IT industry avoided it. "Companies do not want water near electronics," explained Ryan Orr, senior consultant at Uptime Institute. "It is risky and viewed as not a good idea because if they have a leak, it destroys the system."

New options, however, are emerging to make fluids less threatening.

In some instances, water use is limited. Companies rely on it to cool the rear doors on their racks, which are often the hottest spot in a server. Vendors, like IBM and Schneider Electric, are experimenting with self-contained rear-door water cooling units where leaks are contained.

In other cases, data centers ride the waves. Nautilus, based in Pleasanton, Calif., is relying on patent-pending water cooling technology to support its services. The firm is building a floating data center, named "Eli M." That waterborne facility is under construction at California's Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The company plans to offer leasing and colocation services and will market through channel partners.

New fluids emerge

In addition, nonconductive fluids are emerging for data center liquid cooling. In this approach, a server is immersed in liquid for cooling.

3M's Novec Engineered Fluids, for example, are being used by Bitfury Group, a blockchain infrastructure supplier that builds its own application-specific integrated circuits, PCBs, servers and data centers.  

Vendors are also trying to create new elements via Nanotechnology, the science of manipulating atoms and molecules measuring less than 100 nanometers. Emerging nanofluids have the capacity to move more heat than conventional cooling fluids and are designed to be nonconductive.

But data center operators and vendors selling the nontraditional cooling products need to build a new deployment and support infrastructure in order to use the nascent fluids. The new fluid approaches also need to prove they can scale and support high-performance data center requirements.

Data center liquid cooling can significantly lower energy costs and support high-density, high-temperature hardware, but they face some challenges. In general, those cooling methods are largely untested and expensive. Also, they operate differently than traditional approaches, so deploying them requires changes in business process and training of data center personnel.

That said, new data center cooling methods are emerging, and channel partners, including colocation vendors and MSPs, are trying to help fill the void.

Additional reporting by John Moore.

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