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Google’s chilling solution arrives

In his final column for RAC, Andrew Bailey reflects on the future of mechanical cooling, the impact of ac in the bedroom

There is a best-selling Christian book entitled What would Jesus do? Now a secular publication has been added to the genre, in the form of What would Google do? It attempts to map and predict the response of Google, one of the world’s most powerful and innovative companies, to the great business challenges of the day.

Cooling is vital to the banks of high power computers that underpin the internet services of Google and similar companies. The problem is that the surges in processing power have coincided with huge increases in the cost of energy, threatening the economics of the business and exposing operators to charges of environmental vandalism. On both grounds, the conventional approach of throwing large dollops of mechanical cooling at hot silicon is becoming more and more unsustainable.

In the face of this problem, what is Google doing? The answer, it seems, is dropping conventional mechanical cooling. The cooling system inside Google’s new Belgium data center has no chillers. It uses nothing but outside air - so-called “free-cooling” - to counteract the heat generated by its computer systems. Now, as you will no doubt have already twigged, Belgium is not only not the coldest country in the world, it can actually get quite warm in the summer. Google have thought of that. If the Belgian air gets too hot, it shifts the data centre’s computing loads to other facilities where it can throw conventional cooling at it.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Belgium climate can provide free cooling for all but about seven days of the year. Part of the reason for the headroom is that the company reportedly operates its data centres at more than 80 deg F, using special heat tolerant chips. We understand the likes of Microsoft and Yahoo! are also working to cut energy costs by harnessing alternative cooling sources.

In the age of expensive energy, free-cooling has to be the way forward. It is not too hard to envisage giant server farms being built in the icy wastes of the Antarctic, to harness the abundant natural cooling there. Along with the reputed untapped oil and gas reserves underlying the snowy continent, we should look upon its cold as a great untapped natural resource.

As energy costs escalate, it’s possible to imagine in the future the world’s entire server industry underpinning the global internet, online commerce, banking and finance, located in giant ice-bound vaults on Antarctica. It would save billions of pounds in cooling costs. But, we wonder, how much would be the bill for security?

Cool but not sexy

The rise in living standards in China is bringing new prosperity to the masses. Increasingly homes have the two basic items of equipment defining civilised life, a television and a fridge. And many are now adding the third prerequisite in a warm clime, air conditioning at home.

Progress often comes at a price, of course. There is concern about the possible effect of the explosion in the use of air conditioning on people’s love lives. A leading Chinese newspaper headline warned starkly: “Cold environment is not the best environment for sex”.

It goes on to explain, in somewhat comic vein, the perils of air conditioning in the bedroom: “First of all, in love, the whole body has congestive expansion of blood vessels. Sweat glands have the open pores for perspiration, and at this time, as a result of the cool breeze blowing, the skin will suffer a sudden contraction of blood vessels, so blood flows back to the heart, increasing the burden on it. Secondly, in the outdoor summer heat there is a large amount of sweat and blood viscosity is increased, so the brain reduces the blood and oxygen supply. Coming into a cold air conditioned room causes rapid vasoconstriction, a severe hypoxic brain, which makes one particularly vulnerable to fatigue after sex.”

You have been warned.

Over and out

I wrote my first piece for RAC exactly 20 years ago. Then, the industry was suffering a severe shortage of skilled manpower and refrigerants were headline news. Today, as I file my last column, there remains a severe shortage of skilled manpower and refrigerants are still headline news. Clearly, very little has been accomplished over the past 20 years. I can only apologise.

While this column comes to an end, I shall remain busy in my new life in pr. Thank you for your good company between the covers of RAC over the years. It has been a pleasure.