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Why cooling a data centre ecologically is crucial

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Gavin Murray, regional director of data centre engineering and operations, EMEA at Rackspace, discusses how and why data centre operators should be committing to a more ecological way of cooling their facilities, sooner rather than later.

Britain experienced the hottest day of the year so far in July and the second hottest day on record, with temperatures reaching 38°C. As such weather becomes a more regular summer occurrence than ‘freak heat’, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some scientists predict that London will have similar temperatures to Barcelona within just a couple of decades.

As the effects of climate change become undeniable, all industries are faced with a double challenge to overcome. Firstly, how will climate change affect operations and how can its impact be mitigated; and secondly, how are operations contributing to climate change and how can this be reduced? And when it comes to such conundrums, the data centre sector is certainly no exception.

Climate change exacerbates data centre power consumption

The data centre sector is locked in a vicious circle with the impact of climate change: as temperatures rise, more power must be consumed to keep data centres cool. In turn, this increased consumption further contributes to greenhouse gases and the climate crisis.

Analysts predict that the ICT sector could consume one-fifth of the available electricity globally by 2025, driven by the growing volumes of data being created at an ever-accelerated rate. Not only will this put a significant strain on our energy supplies, it will undermine other efforts to contain global warming.

But with cool temperatures so critical to data centre operations, many providers will feel like their hands are tied. Keeping expensive computing equipment from overheating is fundamental to delivering efficient services to customers. And with many organisations’ agility dependent upon their data centres performing optimally, there’s no quick shortcut for data centre providers to reduce their energy consumption.

Cooling is the greatest consumer of power in data centres, accounting for as much as 40 – 50% of all electric power consumed. To put this sheer amount consumed into perspective, in 2015, the world’s data centres consumed 416.2 terawatt hours of electricity, compared with the whole UK consumption totalling 300 terawatts. And of course, the global data footprint has rapidly expanded since then.

The need for a new approach

As temperatures rise, the cost of cooling – both to data centre providers and the environment – will be too much to bear. And if providers don’t change their approach to cooling and continue to address the effect of climate change, the cost will also fall to customers. Indeed, IT decision makers are already cognisant of this, with the cooling credentials of leading data centres playing an increasingly important role in their choice.

Data centre providers critically need to find new ways to address the challenge of cooling amid rising temperatures. Not only to uphold the sector’s responsibility to reduce power consumption and the subsequent impact on the environment, but as a critical factor for their future success. With IT decision makers looking for providers to pass on the cost-savings of innovative cooling technologies, as well as reduce their own company’s carbon footprint in line with many popular Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, the pressure is on data centre providers to keep their facilities cool in a power-efficient and ecological way.

Introducing new cooling methods to help reduce operating costs or data centres’ carbon contribution is no mean feat: it is a complex balance to both reduce power consumption, while simultaneously avoiding downtime for customers. However, there are new approaches to cooling that help providers tackle the issue head on – helping them to optimise energy consumption while simultaneously increasing scalability and improving service delivery.

For example, Rackspace recently achieved the Open Compute Project (OCP) status for its Crawley, West Sussex data centre facility. Achieving this status demonstrates that a data centre provider has implemented the best practices for operations and energy efficiency for all IT equipment.

The data centre was purpose-built using OCP standards by deploying hardware that delivers less weight, less waste, and less wattage than traditional server designs. The 130,000 square foot, 50,000 server facility was designed using OCP standards to optimise energy conservation and scalability. Featuring an outstanding Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of 1.15, compared to the average data centre rating of 1.7, it was awarded a design BREEAM assessment certification of ‘Excellent’.

The state-of-the-art facility was also the first data centre in the UK to utilise the new indirect outside air-cooling technology. This highly efficient method uses outdoor air to cool data centres, considerably reducing the total energy consumption, making Rackspace’s Crawley data centre one of the UK’s greenest.

Commit to a lower carbon footprint

We’re still in our infancy of data creation, collection and storage – the data centre sector will grow in both importance and footprint in the coming decades to match the massive volumes of data generated in an ever-more connected world. But against this promising future, the data centre community must ensure that it is actively tackling its energy consumption and carbon footprint.

The benefits of applying innovative and power-efficient technologies will ultimately be a win-win for data centre providers in this climate. Of course, retrofitting legacy infrastructure will be a complex and costly process for data centre providers – and it won’t be achieved overnight.

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