If you need cool servers, open a window

A couple months ago I reported on a facility in Stockholm that was using the heat from a bank of liquid cooled servers to heat an entire research facility. Using the heat from our electronics for a useful purpose instead of letting that energy go to waste, or treating it as something bad that needs to be mitigated, is a smart way of thinking. It’s taking something we produce anyway, even if by circumstances or accident, and turning it into something useful.

That’s a pretty cool story, but most of the time we experience the opposite problem. The heat from computers builds up in a server room or data center, and the high temperature makes the machines run less efficiently. And if you don’t do something about the problem, it will keep getting worse.

A variety of cooling devices have been invented to help out, like the Tripp Lite SRCOOL12k, which we use to cool down our own GCN Lab. But no matter which method of cooling you use, it’s going to take a lot of electricity, and the First Law of Thermodynamics states that you can’t cool a place without generating an equivalent amount of heat, given that heat is energy. And that heat needs to be vented somewhere, which could result in the heat problem happening somewhere else in your building.

A lot of times the heat removed from a server room is vented outside, unless you happen to work in Stockholm where it can keep your offices nice and toasty instead. However, what if the opposite were true? What if outside air could be brought into a server room to cool it down, and give it a nice fresh meadow-like smell at the same time? That’s kind of what scientists at the  Energy Department are thinking about with their soon to be constructed Berkeley Computing Lab. The lab will hold the world’s newest supercomputer, so there will likely be a lot of heat generated there. Apparently, the breezy atmosphere surrounding San Francisco bay is perfect for cooling down the servers. Scientists estimate the outside air can be used to cool computers 90 percent of the time without any extra devices being brought online, which is impressive given how much heat an industrial supercomputer can probably produce.

This is a good thing and will save energy, but I wonder if they have taken every factor into consideration. There will certainly be humidity problems that will have to be addressed, necessitating some other equipment be brought online even if they are just pumping air into the building to cool it.

Furthermore, even though San Francisco has a cool climate, the region also sometimes experiences scorching summer days, especially in El Nino years. If the DOE were truly serious about using the natural climate to cool the computer, they could pick a spot in Alaska where it’s a lot colder and the air is also dryer.

Then again, they wouldn’t have a beautiful castle overlooking the San Francisco Bay to work in, which must be a nice perk. They might have fewer earthquakes though, which would be a big plus in my book.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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