For companies like Google, there are potential hazards to free cooling
Friday, Feb 21st 2014

Data centers are always looking for ways to cut costs and have the best data room cooling services available. For massive companies like Google, the solution boils down to channeling cooling sources that already exist - such as sea water and air - to cool their data centers. But in some situations, the condition of outside air makes this practice difficult to sustain.

Google: A free cooling powerhouse
Perhaps no company is more well-versed in taking advantage of the natural resources around them than Google, a company whose network of data centers spans the globe. In Hamina, Finland, the company took an old paper mill and transformed it into a data powerhouse, replete with color-coordinated pipeage and even a sauna for employees. But the center's crowning feature is its use of seawater as a data room cooling solution. According to Google, that the data center sat right next to a Gulf presented a unique opportunity to turn natural elements into cooling solutions. Google has implemented a system wherein water from the Gulf is pumped through tunnels into the center, where it is then put to use minimizing the heat generated by the computers.

"The takeaway is, don't look at what has been done as the only way it can be done," said Joe Kava, a director of datacenter construction for Google.

That is why it uses some form of free cooling - including tapping into water and outside air - in all its data centers, according to Google engineer Chris Malone. "It yields tremendous efficiency gains," Malone said.

In Dublin, Google's data center relies on air cooling from Ireland's natural climate. A perusal of all its other data centers reveals that Google's commitment to harnessing natural elements is unshakeable. The benefits are not only monetary, but environmental.

Does air pollution present concerns for outside cooling solutions?
Google clearly has lots of experience tapping into the natural elements - but does the presence of contaminants in the air threaten such a practice? According to industry expert Nigel Laws, it might - depending on the location of the data center. Laws wrote that whenever a data center decides to use outside air as a cooling option, it risks bringing in contaminants from that air, which could prove detrimental to the data center. Thus, companies looking to channel outside air into their center need to keep several factors in mind when considering where to build their data center:

  • Stay away from major roads: Cars leak exhaust fumes, and if a data center is too close to these emissions it risks having polluted air potentially find its way into the center. Diesel fumes and data centers were never meant to mix. Placing a data center at a safe distance from such chemicals ensures they never will.
  • Make sure there aren't treatment plants in the area: As a general rule, data centers don't want neighbors, unless those neighbors are trees, grass or large bodies of water. The presence of a treatment or sewage plant near a data center significantly heightens the risk of chemical contamination, which threatens to find its way into the IT equipment onsite and cause damages, or worse, render it unusable.
  • Avoid parkland: With all the talk of the hazards of industrial elements, it may seem contradictory to advise against building a data center near parkland as well, but parkland comes with its own set of risks for data centers, including insects and high levels of humidity.
  • Location, location, location: If a data center is looking to remain cool year-round, then setting up shop in Death Valley probably is not the way to go. The reason Google has been so successful with its natural cooling solutions is that it strategically places them in regions that provide consistent and dependable outside cooling. 

Nevertheless, outside cooling can prove beneficial both for the center and the environment around it - so long as it is used in conjunction with temperature monitoring equipment. When Google's Finnish center is done using the Gulf waters, that water gets purified, set back to its proper temperature, and returned to its source. This kind of practice isn't just environmentally friendly - it also leads to savings in Power Usage Effectiveness of up to 30 percent, according to Laws.