Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The era of space-based data center capacity planning is over

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Related: Uptime Institute Rings Climate Change Warning Bell for Data Center Operators Data Center Knowledge put the question to four world-class experts. Their answers appear below, verbatim but edited for clarity.

Chris Brown, Chief Technical Officer, Uptime Institute Now, from a practical operational standpoint, I have never run across a data center that designed to 200 Watts-per-square-foot, and then installed to that.  In other words, they will have racks with higher densities and racks with lower densities, as long as they do not cross the density threshold where a different cooling solution is needed.  They are always constrained by the installed cooling and power capacity.  Then if they start to move above that, they will install additional power and cooling infrastructure to increase the available power and cooling capacity.  At some point, real estate does become the issue. Adding fans and cooling capacity means more space, and if there is no more space, there can be no expansion in capacity.

As density increases, there is a break point where air-based cooling becomes not impossible but impractical.  You can continue to put in more fans, but at some point, it will move so much air and be so noisy it will be akin to being on the tarmac of an airport with jets passing by.  Not terribly practical.  If the airflow is enough, pressure becomes an issue just to open and close doors.  So depending on the density, the design plans will different solutions.  Some data centers have ducted the exhaust air out of racks straight to the cooling units on 20kW and 30kW racks to address some issues and increase cooling efficiency.  Others go to water-based cooling, and use rear door heat exchangers, liquid cooling of equipment, and even immersion cooling at really high densities.  In summary, data center design has been, and will continue to be, a balance between space, power, and cooling.  Different approaches to the power and cooling infrastructure are being employed to increase capacity in a smaller footprint.  But any additions will always require space — it is just a question of it being horizontal or vertical space.  We agree that any data center design should plan for future capacity increases to support demand as density increases (we are not making any more space on Earth and thus we will need to increase density), but there is no way to every decouple the three elements of space, power and cooling, as they will always be tied together. But the design choices can maximize capacity in any given footprint.

Related: Vertiv Lightens Debt Load, Returns to the Public Market It is true that any data center, even if it supports HPC, is designed with an average watts-per-area (square foot or square meter, depending upon region).  This does two things: First, it defines the total cooling load expected at full buildout.  There has to be a ceiling defined, otherwise how do you know how much cooling to put in? Additionally, it defines the cooling strategy.

Bottom line, the rack density situation is increasing. For example, a data hall designed for, say, 6 MW for X rack density (equating to the number of racks in the space) drives the total data hall square-foot area. If rack density goes up, you need less square-foot area. The challenge today is, if you build with too high a rack density, you may run out of rack space before you reach the design capacity.  But also, if you build for the right rack density today, then you may not be using the full square-foot area of the data hall. Whether you are stranding cooling capacity or not depends on how the room was laid out. As density goes up, you have unused floor space. Steve Madara, Vice President for Thermal, Data Centers, Vertiv

Changing metrics do not change the methodology of provisioning cooling. It’s knowing the future roadmap for air-cooled server capacity and future liquid-cooled cooling capacity requirements, and planning for the transition.  There are many customers today that are building that flexibility and those solutions, for when the transition occurs. No one can predict when, but the key is a plan for the future density. To provision for higher density racks, generally you need a cooling unit that has more kW of cooling capacity per linear foot of wall space. Are there solutions today with the higher kW per linear wall space? Yes. In non-raised floor applications, we are seeing Thermal Wall/Thermal Array designs that have more coil surface per linear/wall space because the unit is going taller. For raised floor applications, the increased capacity tends to be larger units that are deeper in a mechanical gallery. Is modular add-on a solution? Not necessarily. It will really depend on whether the electrical and additional mechanical systems can support this. If you build all this in on day one, then you are under-utilizing the infrastructure until you grow into it. Much of this above assumes we are continuing with air-cooled servers. The additional cooling capacity can be supplemented with rear door cooling with minimal power-add. However, the world today is starting to see the advent of a lot of liquid cooled servers — fluid-to-the-chip. An existing data hall can easily add the capacity to provide fluid to the rack for the additional cooling load, and the remaining air-cooled cooling capacity will meet the remaining air-cooled load. The challenge now is that you may run out of power for the additional load in the data hall.

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