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Is cooling dead?

The controversial question from the debate is pondered by Tony Wright of event sponsor ebm-papst

As ever, RAC Data Centre Cooling Question Time led to lots of interesting presentations from the panel of industry experts and questions from audience members.

At the event, it was obvious that the data centre industry was increasingly aware of the benefits of energy-efficient cooling, with how to use energy more efficiently now firmly on the agenda for all data centres.

It was clear that the industry now has a far greater understanding of energy use and how to control it effectively.

In terms of reducing energy, data centres were moving away from seeing it as being purely a commercial benefit and are now considering it to be a vital part of their corporate social responsibility.

While ebm-papst would agree that CSR is important for many organisations, especially those with data centres, the commercial benefit is still the main motivator, simply because energy usage is such a significant portion of the operational costs for many data centres.

Is cooling dead?

From our perspective, one of the most prevalent points at the event focused around the cooling debate, and whether or not cooling is now effectively dead in data centres. In the audience and on the panel, there were those that certainly felt that cooling is at least, in the final stages of life, but ebm-papst would take a different viewpoint on this issue.

Ultimately we believe that there will always be a need for cooling in one form or another – the issue is which medium suits data centres best.

The choice is usually governed by two factors, the first being risk and the second being cost.

A traditional air-based solution has very little risk, as if the air leaks there would be no major issues for the data centre, but when using water to directly cool the rack, potential leaks could have catastrophic consequences.

A traditional air-based CRAC unit or adiabatic system using high efficiency EC fans is a very cost-effective method of cooling a data centre, while direct cooling systems using water could potentially have a greater initial cost due to strengthened racks, additional water flow and return pipework.

To regulate or not to regulate?

Another lively discussion was whether there is enough energy-related regulation in data centres.

In comparison to other sectors and industries, data centres are fairly under-regulated, but the audience remained split regarding whether more regulation would a positive thing or not.

There is a view that legislation can be restrictive for industries, but from ebm-papst’s experience with the fan industry, this has either not affected the business or been a positive move in the long term.

Regulation can lead to the further innovation of products and solutions designed to keep the operating costs down for businesses while also helping the environment. Ultimately, positive regulation is good, so anything that helps data centres use energy more efficiently has to be of benefit.

However, a strong argument is that legislation should not force the issue for data centres, as it should be down to a desire from the industry to use energy in a socially responsible manner and to keep operational costs down.

In some ways, this view is correct, as these considerations are often the main motivators for ebm-papst rather than challenges from further regulation.

Time for more controls

Controls is another pressing issue.

The suggestion from the audience that EC fans are widely used across the industry but proper controls were largely absent, which is both positive and disappointing.

This is especially frustrating when you consider that nearly half of all energy savings in data centres and other buildings come through controlling the system effectively.

Traditional CRAC units utilised fixed speed fans with the emergence of EC fan technology and resulting control systems.

The ability to control the speed of the fan now allows the commissioning engineer to set the exact airflow requirement, which then provides further energy savings. The new controls also allow EC fans to be retrofitted into existing CRAC units in legacy data centres. 

Fan controllability is a vital area for all buildings, including data centres, as this ensures that any HVAC system fulfils its true potential in terms of performance and energy efficiency.

However, what data centres need to bear in mind is that a one-size-fits-all set of controls might not work for all.

Data Centre Cooling Question Time showed that data centres are taking energy efficiency seriously and understanding its importance in providing substantial long-term cost benefits.

From our work with data centres, we know that using energy efficiently makes sense, especially from a commercial perspective, and it was refreshing to see data centres making great strides to be more energy-efficient.

The key is maximising data centre energy usage for IT equipment and then reducing the energy consumption of other non-IT related equipment, from lights to cooling.  

Tony Wright is divisional director of ebm-papst

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