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Interview: Next steps needed in data centre energy efficiency

14 Feb 2019
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The data centre industry has experienced monumental growth in an attempt to satiate the world’s demand for data.

However, this has resulted in global concerns surrounding the amount of energy being consumed by the power-hungry facilities.

To get an idea of what can be done moving forward to make the vision of a data-driven world more sustainable, we spoke with SPIE UK data centre director Peter Westwood.

In most data centres cooling is one of the most power-hungry applications, but Westwood says there are technologies like liquid cooling (most recently ‘warm water cooling’) with the potential to make a difference, but the takeup through data centre operators has been slow and should be a design consideration.

“Data centre immersion cooling helps improve thermal design by directly immersing IT hardware in a non-conductive liquid. Heat generated by the electronic components is directly and efficiently transferred to the fluid, thereby reducing need for other active cooling components, such as interface materials, heat sinks and fans,” says Westwood.

According to Westwood, these improvements increase energy efficiency and enable higher packaging densities via the following:

  • Reduces energy usage for server cooling, helping create a greener data centre
  • Involves fewer moving parts that require maintenance and replacement
  • Increases hardware density, since the liquid is more efficient at removing heat
  • Allows higher processor utilisation by maintaining temperatures below the thermal limit
  • IT equipment is easier to service, with electronics emerging clean and dry
  • Significantly reduces noise in server rooms
  • Helps protect IT equipment from environmental contaminants such as dust

Many data centre operators baulk at the idea of making an existing facility more energy-efficient because of the time and money needed, but Westwood says there is no other option.

In a previous article, Westwood highlighted seven key technologies and trends that data centre operators should be employing to optimise energy efficiency, which include:

  • Edge computing
  • Convergence of systems
  • Data centre optimisation
  • Cooling solutions
  • Microgrid architectures
  • Data centre infrastructure management (DCIM)
  • Open Compute Project (OCP) technologies

Westwood alludes to these below.

“The deployment of the aforementioned technology solutions would obviously be easier to deploy at conception, and any new deployment of technology solutions is not easy in a live environment, but generally data centres have good resiliency designed into the systems and need to be maintained and upgraded during its lifecycle,” says Westwood.

“Some of the solutions previously mentioned can be done fairly easily such as data centre optimisation, which is good common practice anyway to undertake. From this data, technology products and systems can be put in place together with DCIM solutions to drive efficiencies. As always there is a cost involved.”

There have a number of recent cases where waste heat products from data centres have been reused to the benefit of surrounding establishments, and I asked Westwood the feasibility of this moving forward for data centres around the world.

“The concept of using waste heat for local district heating networks for residential, offices, swimming pools etc. is a great one. My experience of the fitment of a data centre in an urban area to fulfil the requirements is not that common but has been done many times with the correct application throughout Europe, especially in the Nordic countries,” says Westwood.

“Due to the infancy of the technology, it is still unknown how reliable these solutions would be, but evidence shows that it is even more effective when renewable energies can be included in the system designs in order to provide the electric energy, perhaps running the Heat Pump with PV generation in order to be more independent from the electricity market and enhance the share of renewable energy in the system, as systems that involve heat recovery will consume more electric energy in the operation.”

Westwood says consideration also needs to be made on the specific country cost of electricity.

“Although thermal energy is being utilised in a cost-effective way, running a heat pump system could be expensive. One way to overcome this issue is for local government to put incentives in place to encourage more creative ways to generate power,” concludes Westwood.