By Mike Knight
A Google data centre going offline in July due to a cooling related failure is just one of a slew of challenges posed by climate change that the big tech companies are facing.
Heatwave Knocks London Data Centre Offline
The heatwave in July caused outages due to cooling problems at a London data centre used by Google and Oracle Corp. With predictions of hotter summers to come, some see this as a challenge that the big tech companies will have to quickly find new and effective solutions for going forward.
Almost Half Of All Data Centres
An Uptime Institute study from 2021 showed that 45 percent of data centres have experienced an extreme weather event that threatened their continuous operation, with nearly one in 10 respondents (8.8 per cent) reporting an outage or significant service disruption as a result. Based on these figures, extreme weather is now one of the top causes of outages or disruption.
The Problem With Many Data Centres
With rising temperatures in the future likely to bring regular (summer) temperatures of 37 / 38 degrees and above, the problem with many data centres is that their cooling systems have only been designed with peak outdoor temperatures 32 degrees in mind. Although most don’t operate near full capacity and are, therefore, better able to cope with heat, this may be sorely tested in future with higher temperatures compounded by a growing number of devices and data, e.g. the IoT.
Other Challenges that data centres face are:
- Climate change influenced weather events other than heat threatening data centre operation. For example, a flood in 2016 at the Vodafone data centre in Leeds resulted in customers getting only intermittent services of voice and data.
- The high costs of building new data centres (or refitting and changing existing ones) to cope with much higher temperatures, and current guidelines and regulations for heating, refrigerating and air conditioning being based upon lower temperature figures.
- Rising temperatures, increasing humidity and causing the atmosphere to absorb more water vapour, which in turn can affect data centre operations and interfere with tech equipment, affect the strength of wireless signals, and cause slower broadband connection speeds.
Another growing challenge for data centres is how much water they need to use. For example, back in 2019, it was reported (from public records and online legal filings) that Google requested/was granted, more than 2.3 billion gallons of water for data centres in three different states. Also, in 2020 in early 2020 in Red Oak, just south of Dallas, a legal filing indicated that that Google may have needed as much as 1.46 billion gallons of water a year for its data centre by 2021. This has led to Google, Microsoft, and Facebook pledging ‘water stewardship’ targets to replenish more water than they consume.
All this has means that data centres around the world are now taking new measures to protect themselves from extreme weather that can cause damage and disruption to services. Examples of just some methods that data centres are using include:
- In 2018, Microsoft’s Project Natick involved putting a data centre 117 feet down onto the seafloor of the Northern Isles of Scotland and monitoring its performance and reliability for the next two years with a view to expanding the idea if successful.
- After concluding that air cooling is no longer enough to prevent the chips from malfunctioning, Microsoft opted for two-phase immersion cooling for servers (April 2021). This involves immersing servers in tanks filled with an engineered fluid (from 3M) which boils at 122 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees lower than the boiling point of water) and this boiling effect, generated by the work the servers are doing, removes heat from the computer processors whilst the low-temperature boil enables the servers to operate continuously at full power without risk of failure due to overheating. The second phase of this two-phase process refers to the vapour rising from the tanks making contact with a cooled condenser in the tank lid, thereby changing it back to liquid that rains back onto the immersed servers, creating a closed-loop cooling system.
- Google building super-efficient servers and using DeepMind AI to help, plus Google NL switching to surface water for its datacentre cooling by building a plant that processes canal water.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
The central part that data, the Internet, and the IoT now play in so many businesses mean that outages resulting from cooling issues at data centres could have huge and costly knock-on effects if the big tech companies aren’t able to tackle the problem at scale.
There are, of course, challenges such as the cost of refitting and changing aspects of older data centres to cope with revised temperature ranges in the light of climate change, and to protect them from other related weather events, e.g. flooding.
Liquid-cooling dramatically improves the efficiency of data centres to cope better with extremes of heat, while ideas such as seabed data centres offer some hope, nevertheless the message is that the big tech companies need to quickly think beyond existing cooling technologies and be creative with and invest in new cooling ideas.