The increasing number of individuals connecting to the internet is changing the way data centres are designed and located.

Thinking

Hot Data – the challenge of designing data centres for humid, tropical climates

Half the world is now connected to the internet. At the end of 2018, some 3.9 billion people were using the internet to access information and communication technologies, according to the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union. Not only is this a transformative moment for the internet, it is also changing how data centres, where the data is stored, are designed and located.

As more people are consuming data, we are seeing three notable trends that have an impact on the development of data centres:

  • More data means more storage is required
  • Changes in the scale and power density requirements
  • Decentralisation of data centres as demand grows in developing countries and as governments regulate that data be stored in-country

Keeping data cool

For many years, most data centres were housed in flat, sprawling complexes, located in more temperate climates and where land availability is high. But with decentralisation, more data centres are being developed in tropical climates, and in built-up areas, where land is often scarce. Data centres are also getting taller, as space becomes more confined. Take the example of Facebook, which is investing USD 1 billion to build its first data centre in Asia, and Google, which is investing USD 850 million to expand its Singapore data centre. With the shift to building data centres in tropical climates, comes a new set of challenges — how to locate them in these hotter climates and keep the data centre cool?

Traditional ‘free’ cooling methods used in more temperate climates, which rely on cool outdoor air, are not suitable for data centres in locations such as South-east Asia, where the outdoor humidity usually exceeds 90 per cent and average daily temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius. Older data centres have been designed for indoor environments of 20 – 24 degrees with current standards recommending up to 27 degrees and 60 per cent relative ambient humidity. Some operators are allowing temperatures up to 30 degrees and 80 per cent relative ambient humidity, however data centres continue to be big guzzlers of electricity, especially in tropical climates where temperatures could reach into the high 30s with close to 100 per cent relative ambient humidity.

Hence the keen interest in Green Data Centres. The Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore partnered with industry players to undertake a proof-of-concept trial to develop and deploy the world’s first Tropical Data Centre. The aim was to determine the viability of operating data centres in tropical climates using ambient temperatures of up to 38 degrees and humidity up to or exceeding 90 per cent.

The trial tested central processing units, hard disks and memory sticks and concluded that they are thermally safe with little or no impact on performance when the supply air temperature ranges from 25 to 37 degrees and humidity is between 90 and 100 per cent, as long as there is sufficient air flow, proper air filtration, and combined with anti-corrosion and humidity control measures.

Making data tall

Traditionally, it’d be easy to just add another section to the sprawling complex when expanding a data centre, particularly in space-confined areas such as the dense urban centres of Asia. However, adding another level is a whole new ballgame.

In 2016, two Italian architects proposed a concept for a 65-storey data tower. While the data tower has yet to become a reality, at Aurecon, we are already designing data centres that are 16 storeys high. But building up presents challenges for cooling down.

Traditionally, cooling systems were located on roofs, but in multi-storey designs, the roof is proportionately small to its height. Ejecting hot air horizontally on multi-storey designs is also a challenge as hot air from one level, if not carefully designed, could become the intake air for the level above. Many creative cooling solutions are available; the biggest challenge is designing the best configuration that balances operational needs, energy efficiency, and geographical limitations.

Designing data centre trade-offs

With data centres being built in new locations, we also need to consider the availability of facility management talent in our designs. For example, in locations where such skills are not as readily available, we recommend a system that’s simpler and easier to operate. If such talent is readily available, we still recommend designing to enhance human capability to improve operational performance of data centres.

In the past, data centre designs focused mainly on reliability and redundancy. Now that focus has shifted to energy efficiency and getting the lowest power usage effectiveness (PUE) possible, care must be taken to not take our eye off the ongoing need for resiliency.

These shifts in design focus create new challenges but major rewards when we find solutions. With data centre designs, small improvements could result in major impacts; if we reduce energy consumption by 5 per cent, that could mean USD 1 million in annual savings.

Over the past three years, we have seen how the data centre segment has boomed in Asia, in tandem with consumers’ insatiable demand for ‘always available, always on’. With smarter cities, driverless cars, and blockchain financial applications coming online, the next few years will be even more exciting. Put on your virtual seat-belts and watch this space!


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About the Author

Phil Motteram leads the development and delivery of Aurecon’s data centre and telco business in Asia, leveraging 20 years of data centre experience to help clients respond to demand for highly reliable, energy efficient data centres. Phil is an electrical engineer who has worked on large and complex building projects across the Asia-Pacific for the past 25 years.  

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