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How do the world’s biggest data centres avoid overheating?

Image: Adobe Stock / Connect world

Commercial air conditioner supplier Daikin explores how the world’s largest data centres keep their cool.

Our reliance on the internet has rapidly grown in a comparatively short space of time. Dial-up’s commercial use began around 1992, and broadband quickly upgraded internet access in the 2000s. We want everything, and we want it faster, sharper, and cheaper.

But despite many of us using the internet in some capacity every day (and for some of us, every other minute when you count checking emails and the news on our smartphones) few of us consider the internet and the cloud as a physical presence.

Despite its name, the cloud is not, well, in the clouds. Huge data centres across the world keep our digital world connected and powered — the biggest of which reportedly consumes enough energy to power a city with a population of one million.

These data centres are crucial for us to stream videos, download music, and post on social media. If they crash, sudden outages quickly spark irritation from customers, as British Airways found out in 2017 when a worldwide IT failure of their systems lead to flight cancellations and delays over a bank holiday weekend.

The data centre failure was attributed by the CEO of British Airways to a power surge and a back-up failure, but UK Power Networks denied any power issues in the area that would have caused this.

Outside sources have suggested instead that the real cause of the huge IT failure was overheating. The British Airways data centres were built in the 1980s, and were not built with today’s huge internet usage in mind. As a result, the building is not equipped to deal with the excessive heat generated by this day and age’s data usage. Thus, the equipment shut down to protect itself from the heat.

A worldwide IT failure of bigger companies would prove nightmarish for users and businesses alike — back in 2013, overheating shut down IT kingpin Microsoft’s data centre for a whopping 16 hours. So, what measures do the world’s biggest data centres take to ensure their servers don’t overheat?

Heat generated

Greenpeace’s Click Clean 2016 report outlines that the IT sector consumes around 7% of the world’s electricity, with this expected to triple between 2016 and 2020.

There is a lot of pressure on IT companies to avoid the use of ‘dirty energy’ and commit to renewable energy; three tech giants committed to 100% renewably powered internet in 2012 (Apple, Google, and Facebook).

Not only do data centres need to run on sustainable energy sources, they need to run efficiently. EkkoSense ran a study on 128 data centres in the UK and found 78% of them were running too hot. Data centres that are running too hot are, potentially, consuming too much energy or not using the energy efficiently, so it is a cause for concern. Plus, as outlined above, overheating can cause a complete shutdown of servers, impacting users around the world, or even data or equipment loss.

Air conditioning

There are a few ways in which the world’s biggest data centres work to prevent overheating and subsequent failures.

Obviously, commercial air conditioner systems are frequently used to maintain optimum temperatures. A commonly used technique, explains Daikin, is to utilise heat recovery technology, which uses the heat expelled during the process of cooling to heat offices and water supplies.

Another technique is to have a system installed that uses cold air from outside whenever possible, reducing the energy consumption of the air conditioning units as they switch off in the meantime. This is known as ‘free cooling’.

Ocean cooling

A natural way to cool data centres is also being used by the likes of Google and Microsoft. In 2011, Google housed a data centre in a building in Finland that uses cold seawater to cool the facility.

Prior to Google’s purchase of the building, it was a paper mill that had a massive tunnel constructed beneath it, running under the building and into the Gulf. The tunnel is now used to connect the seawater to their cooling system in a no-energy free-flow system, and the water is returned back to the Gulf cleaner than when it went in.

Microsoft took the idea one step further by fully submerging an entire data centre into the ocean. The idea is, of course, the same — the cold seawater off the coast of Scotland where it has been dropped will keep the centre cool. The project is touted to be powered by nothing but renewable energy and cooled by the ocean, so its impact on the environment is absolutely minimal.

Using waste

Another method of dealing with the heat produced by data centres is to view it in a new light entirely. Instead of regarding the heat as a waste product, some companies, such as tech mogul Apple and Daikin, have used the heat generated by data centres as a means to heat other parts of the building, or even to help provide hot water.

For some, this heat recycling is used within the same building, where others have captured the heat to send back into the community’s heating of offices or homes.

Data centres are a critical element of the digital age; they aren’t going away any time soon, and in fact, they are likely to increase as consumer demand does. Keeping them running efficiently is vital to support the consumer and business needs, so effective cooling methods are priceless.

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