Data centers may be here to stay, but longevity aside, they continue to grapple with the high water and power costs of keeping servers cool.
Various architectures have tried to address this over the years. Some have enclosed the so-called “hot aisles” between server racks to contain the exhaust heat generated. Others have isolated the cooler, so-called “cold aisle" spaces.
Still others have pushed hot air through return or circulation systems in the ceilings of data centers — and yes, some legacy systems still use the time-honored method of simply blowing in cool air through a raised floor.
But officials at Aligned Energy, which opened its first 300,000-square-foot, 30-megawatt data center in early 2016 in Plano, Texas, think they may have a better way to keep information cool with its so-called Conductive Cooling model. Created by Inertech, a business unit within Aligned Energy, the Conductive Cooling model uses a combination of cooling techniques to create a system that uses up to 85 percent less water and up to 80 percent less energy than traditional data centers. This in turn, lets the company offer clients the flexibility of paying for power as they use it rather than leasing it ahead with storage space as in older plans.
During this year's second quarter, Aligned will open a second, 550,000-square-foot, 62-megawatt facility in Phoenix, with plans for four others in the future from Northern California to New Jersey.
The design starts with hot aisle isolation, cooling exhaust heat by drawing it away with heat sinks, then passing it across cooled coils before sending the air back to the servers. The system’s eSync heat removal system and eOpti-Trax cooling distribution unit lead to a heat exchanger, the Cactus, that can use so-called “free cooling,” from outside air and water — but doesn’t have to rely on them.
The system was innovative enough to bring Inertech a bronze Edison Award last year in the Smart Grids & Servers subcategory of its Energy & Sustainability area of recognition. Edison called it “a game-changing technology” that optimizes the cooling cycle’s three core components — heat absorption, transport and rejection.
Jakob Carnemark, CEO of Aligned, said the system’s money-saving quality could make it attractive to government agencies.
Its design, he noted, lets Aligned manage the risk of “stranded capacity” — empty storage space a center is unable to fill due to problems including layout and heat mitigation — without passing those on to the client.
“For 911 facilities, police, fire, things like that, we provide a unique solution … from the standpoint of these agencies. Our ability to kind of flex with their growth, hopefully, is an important feature for them. And then just being able to lower electricity costs, water costs,” Carnemark said.
So far, Aligned has one public client he characterized as a federal government agency in the law enforcement-security sector, but declined to identify. But the Inertech system’s ability to be self-contained, he said, could also bring in others.
“Having a facility that’s less reliant on utilities and is more secure is important. Just the fact that we don’t bring in outside air,” Carnemark said. “There’s a lot of things that can happen that a data center that uses large amounts of outside air would be at risk for.”
Lenovo’s Director of International Real Estate Deirdre Buzzetto said the company has used Inertech technology to cool data at two Data Center Group (DCG) facilities in Raleigh, N.C., and Santa Clara, Calif., since 2014.
In addition to concerns about energy costs, some engineers at the North Carolina location were initially skeptical about the system’s reliability, Buzzetto said.
But Lenovo, which owns DCG, has saved about $450,000 in annual energy costs in North Carolina, and about $250,000 annually in Santa Clara, Buzzetto said, noting via email that the company saved money initially on its installation, and subsequently on energy and water costs and operating expenses.
“I think many of the same reasons apply to the public sector,” Buzzetto said.
John Sasser, senior vice president of data operations at Seattle-based Sabey Data Centers, offered a more critical perspective.
Depending on the exact distance between the servers and the heat exchange in Inertech’s architecture, Sasser said the company could definitely save on fan energy and, potentially, on energy costs. But he questioned the proximity of any water pipes to IT equipment — a concern he said Sabey customers often voice — and wondered about the flexibility of their heat exchange capacity.
“I think it makes a lot of sense for public agencies to look at co-location providers. They’re in some ways a small to medium business enterprise,” said Sasser, whose company offers storage space to a variety of public sector clients. (Co-location providers are so-named because they offer data storage space to more than one client at the same location.)
That said, he pointed out public agencies may be somewhat constrained by not making investments of this magnitude very often.
“Very often it's difficult for customers to predict what capacity they might need now versus what they might need in the future,” Sasser said. “You may only be able to go out and ask for those dollars once every 10 years.
Carnemark said Inertech’s technology deploys multiple strategies to deal with exhaust heat, and in envisioning the system initially, its engineers took a different view of the larger issue.
“What was clear from the outset was the approach to cooling data centers have all been approaches to cooling," he said. "What the team realized, data centers are not really a cooling problem, it’s a heat removal problem."
Mark Monroe, executive director of Infrastructure Masons (IM), a not-for-profit group of industry professionals who design, build and run “technical infrastructure for the digital age,” acknowledged that for applications like streaming, so-called “edge data centers” near their clients may be the way to go.
But Monroe said co-location companies like Aligned — whose CEO is, like Monroe, a member of IM's Partner Advisory Council — and Sabey likely represent the way forward for public agencies that may not want to build their own data centers.
“The colocation companies like Aligned, they’re building two, three, four data centers a year and using the most advanced techniques … and so the product is almost always better than someone could build on their own,” Monroe said.
“The co-location providers are definitely stepping up to the challenge and putting in place the kinds of things government agencies require in order to go,” he said, predicting that in less than 10 years a wholesale migration may happen: “Having your own data center in the 2020s will be like running a mainframe was in the early 2000s."
Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.