Posts Tagged : Green

My Perfect Green Data Centre (5) – Evaporative Cooling

I started thinking about this subject five years ago and, back then, I wondered if evaporative cooling would be useful in the humid tropics.

The form of evaporative cooling with which us humans are best associated is sweat. The reason sweat cools us down is not that we are covered in water, but that the water, when it evaporates, cools us.

In the dry air of Europe and North America, humidity is generally low, so evaporative cooling has not taken off. As it would seem that most HVAC engineers are educated in this tradition, whenever I mentioned evaporative cooling, I was steered quickly away. Even Dr. Hot, a consultant in thermodynamics, rubbished the idea. As he was the expert, I parked evaporative cooling in my bag of good-ideas-that-turned-out-to-be-rubbish.

Dr. Hot was dead wrong: so much for experts. A month ago I went to a data center fair in Hong Kong and came across Munters, a company that makes industrial-scale evaporative cooling for data centers. While I accept a certain amount of hype, their cooling system is the choice at Supernap’s new Tier-4 data centre in Thailand, and Munters claim that it saves so much power that, even in the tropics, a PUE of 1.2 is achievable – a massive saving on energy.

On the back of an envelope

IT Load PUE Cooling Power
2,500,000 2.0 2,500,000
2,500,000 1.7 1,750,000
2,500,000 1.3 750,000

So, the difference between a PUE of 1.7 and 1.3 is a 1MW generator set. A huge saving in capital cost (being green pays!), but also a significant reduction in the pollution that gen sets spew into the atmosphere, and the environmental impact of building, shipping and ultimately destroying the things.

That’s already good in a colo environment. In the self-contained pod that I sketched in my previous post, the idea would be to make the outer casing the evaporative cooler. Munter’s design re-circulates the air inside, so the idea would be to put the heat exchange on the wall, and the fans and pumps on the roof. Probably a rather expensive experiment, but I can’t help wondering if that may get the PUE down as far as it can go.

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My Perfect Green Data Centre (4) – DC, Postscript 2

Here’s another advantage to delivering DC to the back of the computer: overcapacity.

A couple of years ago, I moved a client’s IT estate from its in-house server rooms to a colo operator. The in-house server rooms were not separately metered and the client had large call centers, so overall high electricity consumption. There was no way of establishing the power consumption, but the colo operator needed to know how much power to reserve for the base load. In the end, I got hold of some spec sheets for “typical servers” in their estate and made an educated guess of 2kW / rack. I always specify power-consumption be monitored at the rack level, so when we’d moved them in, I added up the numbers. The core switches, which came with 3kW PSUs, were pulling 1.2kW for the entire rack; the single biggest consumer was just over 4kW. The average was 1.3kW – I’d oversized by 30%.

When an engineer specifies a PSU for a computer, he does so based on maxima: the maximum number of processors, disks, RAM, etc. He then allows a safety margin. PSUs are manufactured in standard sizes, so he chooses the next standard size up. (HP’s tool is here.) He also assumes that the computer will run flat-out. Put all this together, and a computer that ticks over on 200W for most of its life will have a 500W PSU. Yet data centers are obliged to design a supply that can deliver this peak theoretical load. What we end up designing for is the sum of the maxima, rounded up.

If we deliver DC direct to the computers, we can eliminate the over-capacity due to (a) the rounding up and (b) using a sum when an average would suffice.

These can add up to big numbers. A server that requires 330W ends up with a 500W supply, and the data center provider ends up sizing for the 500W, not the 330W. Add that up across 5,000 servers, and we’re overdesigning by 850kW just because we’re rounding up.

The difference between the average peak demand and total peak demand is more difficult to put a number to, but the idea is that not every computer is going to run flat-out at the same time. At any given time, some computers will be running flat-out consuming all 330W, many will be rumbling along at, say, 200W, and a few will be fast asleep at basically 0W. If I assume a (slightly skewed) normal distribution, we end up with the difference between 5,000*330W and 5,000*200W = 650kW.

Add these two numbers together, and based on the 5,000*500W that we started with, and we have the difference between 2.5MW and 1MW. Yes, that’s a 60% reduction in the power we design for. And it’s not only the electricity supply, but the cooling too ends up over-sized. This all has a carbon footprint: we’re buying batteries, invertors, flywheels, gen sets, cooling, the whole lot, that will never be used.

Of course, in the real world we’d have to allow for various other factors, and we’d need actual data. But the point remains that by centralizing our PSUs into a couple of industrial-scale PSUs and distributing DC, we can come up with a much leaner design.

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My Perfect Green Data Centre (5) – Cooling Common Sense

There are a few simple things we can do to reduce the huge amounts of energy that data centers consume in keeping cool.

Insulation. I do not understand why the construction industry in Asia is so completely clueless about cavity walls and other ways of keeping cool air in and hot air out, but it is. So, for a start, let’s be clever in our use of construction materials. Structurally, a single-floor data centre is a shed. At least make a shed with insulated ceiling and walls.

Geothermal Piling. This is in widespread residential and industrial use in northern Europe. The ground itself is a great heatsink, and using geothermal piles to draw excess heat into the ground removes a lot of excess heat for free.

Air Containment. Computers suck cold air in through the front and blow hot air out of the back. Barely a single data centre in Thailand, for example, makes any attempt to keep the cold and hot air separate. The result is that the cooling system works overtime. This leads to huge inefficiencies, and much higher energy consumption than would otherwise be required.

Temperature: The specification says 18-27C. That means it’s safe to run the intake air at 27C. There is no need whatsoever to turn the air-con down to 21C, as happens in so many data centres. Some people may defend this by saying that, should the cooling go off due to power or other failure, it’s possible to run the equipment for longer before the room becomes so hot that it’s necessary to depower the IT equipment. True, but the amount of time it gains is seconds. In a recent experiment, UI killed the air-con: the room heated by 5C in one minute (yes, sixty seconds). So you buy about 72 seconds extra run time for that huge extra cooling cost.

Layout: Work with your tenants / clients to avoid hotspots. A single cold- or hot-air containment unit needs to be cooled for the hottest area. If one rack’s humming away at 10kW and the rest are ticking over at 2kW, the former will drive the air-flow. Fix it.

So much for colo. In any case, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted as it’s the clients who think they know everything who are the biggest problem. Here’s one for cloud in section…

Pod 1

and in plan.

Pod 2

So, what’s going on here?

The idea is a kind of super-containment vessel which uses natural convection to assist the cold- and hot-air separation.

The first thing to note is height. The only reason our racks are 42U is because most humans can’t reach any higher. However, in a cloud environment, where the estate is almost completely homogenous, and where computers that break don’t need to be fixed – ever – three is no reason for humans to come in (at least, not to fix the computers, although specially trained technicians may need to service other stuff).

Without humans, we can stack computers much higher, and stacking higher allows us to take advantage of natural convection.

Cold air is injected down the middle of the tower. It will need to be blown, but at least cold air falls all by itself, so it will need to be blown less hard than conventional systems which blow cold air up from the floor void.

The computers are arranged in a rotunda, the fronts facing the central core and the backs facing the outer side. They take cold air in through the front and blow hot air out through the back.

The hot air rises from up the outside of the rotunda. This is an enclosed space, so the chimney effect will accelerate the hot air up, sucking hot air out of the backs of computers on the higher levels. As with the cold air injection, the hot air extraction will still require some fans, but those fans will work a lot less hard than in conventional systems.

In addition, with the hot air on the outside of the rotunda, it may be possible to dissipate some heat using heat fins or – next post – evaporative cooling. In practice, these would be on the side of the vessel facing away from the sun, and the side facing the sun would carry solar panels.

How much will this save? I don’t know; I don’t have the technical knowledge to run this through a Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) model. But the HVAC people I’ve shown this to concur that it’s likely to yield at least some saving, probably a few percent. But even 5% of 500 racks * 10 servers per rack at a PUE of 2 is 125,000W.

And, best of all, it will look much more interesting than the average data centre, which is to all external appearances a shed.

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My Perfect Green Data Centre (4) – DC, Postscript

In the last post, I looked at the DC side of things and concluded that there’s a lot to be said for eliminating all those PSUs and invertors (and wire), and regarding the battery pack as the immediate upstream supply of the IT load. The problem I was left with was that if we regard the batteries as the primary power source, we’d need a truly gargantuan battery pack.

The simple answer is that the battery pack is still a secondary power source, to provide power in the small windows when the primary power source is being switched over – i.e., while the generator sets start up.

A more interesting question is whether we can eliminate the batteries. After all, most data centers rely on lead acid batteries and, although lead and sulphuric acid are cheap and plentiful, even a few hundred racks requires several tons of the stuff – and the batteries need to be replaced every few years. Disposing of used lead and acid is a nasty business. So batteries have a big carbon footprint of their own.

As I stated in the second post, there are many ways of storing energy. Batteries are one, but so are flywheels. Flywheels will last the full life-span of the data centre, but produce AC (as do gen sets). How could this work?

Here’s the last post’s schematic:

Power chain batteries

If the power source (at the top) is photovoltaic, which produces DC directly, then this works. However, if the power source is AC, this is missing one very important component: a rectifier to turn that AC to DC before it gets to the batteries:

Power chain batteries and rectifier

So, what we’re in effect doing is combining 10,000 PSUs into a single, industrial scale rectifier. Now let’s add the flywheels:

Power chain flywheel

Which gives us the best of both worlds.

As a footnote, many people disparage flywheels because they only provide power for a few seconds while the generators power up. This is not long enough to perform an orderly shutdown of the computers.

I’ll come back to this when I tackle cooling, but the short answer is that the usual 15 minutes of battery life is 14 minutes longer than operational conditions will be maintained anyway.

In short, we’re looking at two divergent topologies that depend on whether the main power source is AC or DC. Before we decide which main power source is optimal, we’ll have to look at the AC load. Which is for a future post.

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My Perfect Green Data Centre (4) – DC

Here’s the back of a typical server (taken from the HP DL380 spec sheet):

HP DL360 Server

HP DL360 Server

Those things with the fans in the bottom right are the Power Supply Units (PSUs) – i.e. where you plug the power in. Servers have two of them and, in a conventional data center, each PSU is connected to a separate source. The exact configuration depends on what tier the data centre is; here’s a typical arrangement for Tier 3/4:

Power chain

So, if we start at the bottom, each PSU is connected to a local distribution panel (PDU). Each of these will in turn usually go back to an intermediate distribution panel (DB) which in turn goes to the main distribution panel (MDB). Each MDB will go to its own power source or sources – usually a combination of gen sets and utility / grid power. The way in which the UPSs are fitted between the DBs and MDBs depends on various factors which needn’t detain us here.

This is daft.

  • The computer itself does not need 230V AC / 110V AC. It needs DC.
  • The battery pack for a typical UPS supplies DC.
  • So, in a conventional design, when the computers run off UPS power, we take DC from the batteries, turn it into AC, send it to the computer, and turn it back to DC.
  • Those two conversions cancel each other out.

Talk to any telecoms person, and they’ll confirm the daftness. Telecoms has used 48V DC pretty much since Alexander Graham Bell invented the modern telephone, and conventional land lines to this day leave the exchange at 48V DC. So why would one use AC to begin with?

One possible answer is power loss. When you transmit electricity down wires, some electricity is lost in the form of heat. The amount of power lost is proportional to the square of the current. As the total power is the product of the voltage and current, high voltage and low current results in less power loss than low voltage and high current. The downside to this is that higher voltages are more lethal than lower voltages, but we can set that to one side for this post.

Is power loss something that should concern us in a data centre? The maths is straightforward so let’s take some typical numbers.

  1. An average server consumes 500W of power.
  2. There is 100 meters of wire between the server and its power source.
  3. The power loss in the wire has a resistance of 6E-8 Ohms per meter (I got the numbers from here, and took a mid-point).

So, in a conventional set-up, the power is delivered as 250V AC, and the current will be 2 Amps (250V * 2A = 500W), and the power loss will be

(2A)^2 * 100M * 6E-8Ω/M = 0.000024W

If the power is delivered as 5V DC, the current will be 100 Amps, and the power loss will be

(100A)^2 * 100M * 6E-8Ω/M = 0.06W.

That is proportionally a huge difference. But the AC calculation does not include the loss in converting from AC to DC and back again. Even if that’s only 0.1% both ways, that’s an additional .5W to convert DC to AC at the inverters and the same again to convert AC back to DC in the PSUs, for a total of 1.000024W, which is rather a lot more than 0.06W. So DC-DC is the clear winner.

This raises two questions. The first is whether it’s worth worrying about; the second is what to do about it if we should worry about it.

If your data centre has 500 racks and 10 servers per rack, that’s 5,000 servers. The total power loss for AC is 5,000*1.000024= 5000.12W. If we deliver DC, the total power loss is 5,000*0.06 = 300W. However, in both cases, the total power required by the IT is 500*5,000 = 2,500,000W. Whether the power loss is 5000.12W or 300W, it’s negligible compared to the total load. So, on a pure numbers basis, it’s immaterial.

But, and as I said in my first post in this series, I’m taking a holistic view of “green.” I’m not just worried about how economical a data centre can be in its usage of power. I’m also concerned about minimizing the overall carbon footprint. If we’re to do that, we need to look further than calculations such as the above. In terms of the power loss, the difference between AC and DC is negligible. But getting rid of 10,000 PSUs and some pretty beefy inverters does make a difference. Manufacturing that stuff – and destroying it safely when it’s finished – has an impact. That impact is not only avoidable; all those inverters and PSUs cancel each other out: they are functionally equivalent to nothing. So, if we’re to take “green” at all seriously, ditch the lot.

The next objection will be that batteries supply 12V and most computers need 3.3V, 5V or 12V. As it happens, the industry is moving towards a single 12V supply, with conversion to the lower voltages being done on the motherboard. But batteries can be designed for pretty much any voltage and, just as data centers today offer the choice between 2- and 3-phase, there’s no reason they can’t offer the choice between different DC voltages.

Another advantage of DC is less wire. Most computer equipment today has three wires: live, neutral and earth. With 110V/230V, the earth is necessary as these voltages are lethal. 12V is not lethal, and it is safe to ground the neutral wire in a DC circuit (it isn’t with AC). The average data center contains literally tons of copper wiring and reducing three wires to two is a hell of a lot less copper to quarry, refine, turn into wire and ship, and a hell of a lot less PVC to insulate it with.

And, yes, supplying DC direct to the computers would save a lot of money: no invertors, far fewer PSUs, and a third less wire.

So: what to do about it? The obvious and simplest answer is that we make the primary source of power for the computer equipment the battery pack:

Power chain batteries

Now, this may seem like a simple change, and I have been quite deliberate in making the minimum possible change to the drawings to maintain this illusion. However,putting on my Accredited Tier Designer hat, there remains a serious issue if one’s operating within the Uptime Institute framework. According to UI, the primary source of power for a data centre is the on-site power generation. That on-site power must be able to run the data center indefinitely, and should have a minimum capacity of 96 hours. If the primary power source is the batteries, the battery pack for 96 hours would be gargantuan.

I’ll fix that in the next post.

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My Perfect Green Data Centre (3) – AC/DC

AC/DC is not the name of the rock band, nor an allusion to anything regarding sexual preferences.

As I said in my last post, electricity consists of electrons in motion. However, there are two basic modes of motion: coming and going, or plain going: Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC). There’s pretty comprehensive wiki article on AC here.

Why should this matter? Simple. Data centres put electricity to two fundamentally different types of work. The first type of work is IT. All IT runs on DC. Just because it’s got a 110V/230V AC socket at the back doesn’t mean it consumes AC. The first thing the computer does is convert the AC to DC.

The second work to which electricity is put is cooling. There are quite a few technologies for this, and the optimal technology depends on the size of the data centre and the climate, but they all boil down to the same three types of components: heat exchanges, pumps and fans.

Why does this matter? After all, we’ve been converting AC to DC on an industrial scale for over a century, and, since the advent of the switch mode power supply, the conversion loss from AC to DC is tiny.

Here are a few reasons:

  1. Photovoltaics generate DC, not AC. Converting DC to AC has never been as efficient as the other way around.
  2. Batteries produce DC.
  3. Industrial scale pumps and fans are much more efficient with AC (3-phase) than DC.
  4. In order to get really green, we need to get really efficient. All the easy wins have been won; we need to look at the margins to find those remaining gains.
  5. Engineering excellence.

So, in the next part(s), I’ll look at the DC part. I’ll move on to the AC part when I’ve finished with that.

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My Perfect Green Data Centre (2) – Storing Energy

The idea is to build a clean data centre: less energy, cleaner energy, and fewer nasty things. As the first two concern energy, I’ll first set the scene on what energy is.

Data centres are energetic beasts. They not only consume huge amounts of energy, but must also store huge amounts of energy. The obvious example is the battery pack of a UPS system, but that diesel fuel in the tanks for the generator sets is also a form of stored energy, and air-cooling systems are full of pockets of stored energy, too.

Energy takes many forms, but the form which computers need is electrical. And this is the first difficulty with data centres. Nature is set up to store heat, movement (kinetic) energy and so forth, but not for storing electricity. Take heat. The atmosphere which protects this planet from the frigid reaches of interplanetary space is a natural heat storage system, and the rock crust of Earth which keeps the mantle contained, another. A vacuum flask is not natural, but it’s cheap, easy to make, and stores heat.

Another form of natural energy storage is kinetic. Set a (fly)wheel in motion and, absent of friction, it will spin until the end of time. Kinetic storage can also be combined with gravity: lift something up using kinetic energy, and the energy used to lift it will be stored until that thing is dropped. (As one of nature’s clumsier individuals, I often see downwards kinetic energy realized by the breakage of a cup.)

Electricity is an altogether different beast. Electricity is free electrons in motion. For those who remember school chemistry, atoms consist of a nucleus of protons and neutrons, surrounded by outer shells of electrons. Those electrons spin round and round the atom. So, in a sense, potential electricity is everywhere – in the pages of the books in the shelves to the right of where I sit typing, in the precarious cup in front of me. But, in the other sense, it’s nowhere, because like people, electrons are creatures of domesticity. They only leave if pushed; they don’t just wander away.

When an electron is knocked off its atom, it seeks a home. To do this, it must move and, when it does this – and only when it does this – does it become electricity. Hence the problem: you can’t store things that are moving.

Nature, therefore, doesn’t store electricity per se and neither do we. We convert electricity to another form, and convert it back again when we need it. The predominant ways of doing this are electromagnetic induction, photonic bombardment, and the quantum equivalent of a foster home.

Induction (I won’t pretend a detailed understanding of the physics) is the traditional method of generating electricity: stored or generated kinetic energy is used to turn a turbine, which in turn rotates a magnetic field in a dynamo or alternator, which produces electricity. Turbines are turned indirectly by steam by burning coal, oil, LPG, diesel, recycled waste and creating sub-critical masses uranium, and directly in hydroelectric plants and wind turbines.

Photonic bombardment is the essential physics behind all photovoltaic (PV) cells. Photons, those bearers of light - mostly from the sun but in principle from anywhere – knock the electrons out of their homes.

The foster home is the battery: an electron is given temporary accommodation on the outer ring of an atom that doesn’t really want it, and runs free as soon as it’s offered a place to go.

So, that preliminary out of the way, on to where it all starts: the back of the computer.

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My Perfect Green Data Centre (1)

This is the first of a number (I don’t know how many) of posts on how I’d set about building the perfect green data centre (and “green” doesn’t refer to the colour of the paint).

First, a little about me. I’m an Uptime Institute Accredited Tier Designer (no 1837), and one of the very few ATDs who has an IT rather than an engineering background. I started my career when I was thirteen, soldering together brick and bat tennis games. Within a year, I’d graduated to a 6502-based Commodore PET, and have been hooked ever since. After a patch of software, I rekindled my hardware roots and moved into IT infrastructure. I’ve assessed dozens if not hundreds of data centres on behalf of my clients, I’ve moved clients in and out of data centres, and I built the Arabian peninsula’s first Tier-4 data centre (though it never was certified).

I live and work in South-East Asia. Most of SE Asia is under-serviced with data centers, but a sixth the Earth’s population lives here. Therefore, lots of data centers are waiting to be build. But SE Asia presents challenges that are not present in North America or Europe. Supernap, for example, have huge campuses in Reno and Las Vegas. But there, the temperature and humidity is within ASHRAE A3 limits for nearly every day of the year – what cooling they need, can often be provided with fans.

In SE Asia, in the tropics, it’s either chucking down rain with humidity in the 90%+ range, or it’s the dry season and temperatures soar through the 40C mark. So the trajectory that’s been taken in the developed world, although it can be made to work, won’t produce optimal results. Given just how many data centers are likely to be build in the next decade, and the enormous potential for them to be nasty and polluting, there’s an urgent need to re-think how we build them.

The industry as a whole is well aware of green concerns. But most of those come down to energy efficiency. The IT load is taken as given, and the focus is on minimizing the load around that, mostly cooling. This leads to the standard industry measure of efficiency, the Power Utilization Efficiency or PUE. The industry is aware that there’s more to it than that, but has yet to come up with benchmarks that include how clean the power is (coal-generated electricity being the dirtiest and renewables the cleanest), or the carbon footprint of building the data center itself.

So my concern is broader than PUE. I am concerned about:

  1. Energy efficiency
  2. Source(s) of the energy
  3. Minimizing the use of substances that have nasty environmental effects

And this, within the context of providing predictable availability in a secure environment.

I hope this blog will not become another guy spouting off into the void of cyberspace. I’m open-sourcing my ideas in the hope that someone out there – Tim Cook? Mark Zuckerberg? – hears of them and decides to build one of my perfect green data centers. I’d like to give them the best possible, and for that, I’d love feedback, improvement and, above all, corrections.

A final point. I do not claim that my ideas are original in the sense that no one has had them; that I am the first to have them. Where I find that someone else has had the same idea, I will attribute it. All I claim is that the ideas here are original in the sense that I had them independently.