A beginner's guide to data center cooling systems

A beginner's guide to data center cooling systems

Modern data centers are remarkably technologically complex, and keeping them running safely and efficiently requires continual close monitoring and management. Among the most important various tasks facing data center managers is maintaining the right temperature. Should the temperature and humidity rise to excessive levels inside the data center, condensation can start to form - thereby damaging the machines within. It should go without saying that this can cause massive damage and disruption, and that it therefore has to be avoided at all costs. Fortunately, there are various technologies on hand which can help to keep data center temperatures at the right level.

Still, if you're not au fait with data center technology then you might be wondering just how this works. Data center environmental control is, after all, a complex business and there's much to consider. That's why we've written this guide to data center cooling systems - so you know what goes into them, and how they work. Let's start by getting better acquainted with data center environmental management.

Data center environmental management - the basics

So, just what is data center environmental control really all about? An article from Wikipedia offers us a useful overview. In a nutshell, data center environmental control encompasses the management of a range of different factors - particularly temperature and humidity - to ensure that data center equipment runs efficiently and safely. In addition, hot air expelled from IT equipment can be recycled to improve data center cooling efficiency. Efficiency can also be improved by reducing bypass airflow - the amount of time it takes for air to flow through a device. This is known as air flow management.

Generally speaking, the recommended temperature for data centers is between 70 and 75°F (or 21 and 24°C). It is worth noting, however, that some studies have indicated that firms may be wasting money by keeping temperatures below 70°F (21°C). Data centers may have to keep temperatures lower than recommended depending on atmospheric stratification. A mixture of cold air and exhausted air can lead to an increase in refrigeration costs. This goes to show just how many factors need to be considered to ensure an optimum balance in data center environmental management.

Proper rack hygiene can help to prevent exhaust air from leaking into the intake area. For example, blanking plates or other fittings could be placed around the edge, floor, top or the rack direct air intake to ensure that only air from the cold aisle reaches equipment intakes. Hot and cold aisles can also be contained to prevent cold and hot air from mixing inside server rooms.

Data center cooling - potential problems and how to deal with them

As we discussed earlier, data centers are home to very complex and advanced technology. Ensuring that this machinery ticks over safely and avoiding any potential problems is crucial. Of course, as the technology deployed in data centers evolves, so the challenges facing data center managers change. New techniques must continually be developed in order to deal with new risks - after all, IT refreshes tend to occur every one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half years, which should give you some idea just how rapid the pace of change tends to be. An article from PTS Data Center Solutions offers us insight into these issues.

There are five key challenges when it comes to data center environmental control - adaptability and scalability, availability, life cycle costs, maintenance and serviceability, and manageability.  Even where the characteristics of future loads can be determined in advance, it can be difficult to know for sure whether a data center cooling system is capable of meeting the increased demand. Data center cooling systems must therefore be flexible and scalable, so that they can be adapted to meet changing needs.

Steps you can take to improve energy efficiency

Not only is climate change perhaps the main burning issue of our time, but energy bills have rocketed in recent years - and as data centers tend to require vast amounts of energy, it makes sense for them to be as efficient as possible. Technology giant Google has taken various steps to improve the energy efficiency of its data center cooling infrastructure, and has outlined five of them in an article on its website. It stresses the importance of taking decisive action to boost energy efficiency, whether you're running a small data center or a larger facility.

First of all, it's essential that data centers measure just how much energy they use for non-computing functions such as cooling. This allows for more effective management. The article also points out that effective airflow management is particularly important. Through effective containment, data centers can reduce the risk of hot and cold air mixing. However, it also points out that careful analysis can help to maximize the improvement of airflow management. Google suggests using thermal modelling and computational fluid dynamics to devise an optimal strategy for air flow management.

Free cooling can also help to improve data center energy efficiency. There are a number of forms of free cooling, including thermal reservoirs, low-temperature ambient air and evaporating water. The article also states that while 70°F is generally recognized as the optimum temperature for data centers, many equipment manufacturers allow them to keep cold aisles at 80°F or higher. Nevertheless, it may be worth consulting your equipment manufacturer in order to determine the best approach for your data center.

What does the future hold for data center temperature management?

We've already discussed how rapid technological change requires data centers to be continually flexible so that they can make the most of new technologies and meet their clients' changing needs. It seems inevitable, then, that there will be significant changes in the years ahead. According to Techtarget, however, the changes we see over the next few years are likely to be relatively modest compared to the wide-ranging technological innovations seen recently. Instead, the article suggests, data center cooling technologies will be honed and refined rather than overhauled.

The article observes that many experts in the field foresee the adoption of some alternative data center cooling technologies, however. Data centers will most likely come to adopt a mixture of traditional and alternative cooling methods, while the location of data centers may come to be a major issue in the coming years. Building data centers in locations with cooler climates or close to sources of cold water could help to significantly increase energy efficiency - as well as cutting costs.

We noted in the previous section that according to Google, many data center equipment manufacturers now design their equipment to run at temperatures higher than the standard 70°F. This is a trend which some experts believe is likely to gather momentum over the next few years. Next generation servers may therefore be able to run at considerably higher temperatures, which should again help to save data centers money and effort when it comes to temperature management.

In time, we can realistically anticipate that the role of traditional mechanical cooling will be reduced somewhat. Free cooling techniques are likely to be deployed more broadly, with the new generation of data centers designed to take advantage of them. This is why operational sustainability is so important - data centers must be able to plan ahead and anticipate new technological innovations, so that they can adapt accordingly and change the way they run their affairs.

In conclusion

We have established, then, that data center cooling systems are indispensable to the way data centers are run. They have changed dramatically over the years and will continue to evolve in the years ahead. It is, of course, important for data centers to ensure that they remain ahead of the pack and that they take advantage of the very best technological innovations as they arise. Geist has a range of data center cooling products which can help boost efficiency. From passive cabinet containment to switch cooling, Geist offers an extensive selection of cutting-edge data center cooling technologies to ensure top performance and enhance energy efficiency - thereby ensuring that your data center saves money on its energy bills, as well as doing its bit to reduce its carbon footprint.