An Inconvenient (Data Center) Truth

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Rick Stevenson is CEO of Opengear, a company that builds remote infrastructure management solutions for enterprises.

Rick-Stevenson-tnRICK STEVENSON
Opengear

Another month, another announcement of an “unusual” data center locale. This past summer, Facebook announced the opening of their data center in Lulea, Sweden, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle, which is welcomed to the Scandinavian neighborhood by Google’s nearby data center in Finland. These data centers add to the remote placements of their brethren in places like bunkers, caves, cathedrals, and other unique locations the world over. The spate of data center installation in these far-flung locations underscores the fact that the environment of a data center matters even beyond its climate-controlled confines.

While the magnitude is debatable, data centers have at least some impact on the environment: they throw off a lot of heat and cooling them requires a lot of power. Data centers are probably not the leading cause of human-induced global warming or climate change, but they are certainly not mitigating these human-induced effects in any way. So what’s the relationship between data centers and the environment? Considering these unusual data center locations demonstrates some of the challenges posed to building and maintaining data centers as a response to both the current environmental landscape and the uncertain environmental future.

It’s Cold, Cold, Cold

Data centers get built where they are for a variety of reasons, from taking advantage of convenient, empty, and available locations to responding to the particularities of tax laws that make one state more advantageous, business-wise, over another. However, many data centers are trying to manage their heat problem by locating in cold places. If you can take advantage of naturally cool environments (like they have near the arctic circle or underground in caves or nestled in old Cold War bunkers), then you can cut down on your cooling costs. Some data centers have even taken to using the heat they throw off to keep residences warm during cold seasons.

Using low ambient temperatures to mediate the heat thrown off by data centers not only cut costs because they use less energy to cool those data centers, but they also reduce emissions precisely because less energy is used. Again, these data centers aren’t exactly preventing global warming, but they are lower impact than they otherwise might have been.

But if cool weather is good for data centers, what happens to data centers under global warming and climate change?

For the most part, predictions for average temperature changes under global warming amount to only a couple degrees: the EPA estimates that low emissions scenarios will result in somewhere between a 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit increase, while high emissions scenarios predict anywhere between 4 to over 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. In any case, cooler places will stay cooler, and they will definitely remain cooler than the interior of an operational data center.

En (Storm) Garde

What may be more of a threat to data centers are all those storm systems cropping up and causing a great ruckus each time. In addition to the cold, it is also advantageous to house certain kinds of data centers near the populations they serve; so, many data centers (particularly those located in the United States) exist on coasts. To be fair, the jury is still out on whether climate change will result in worse storms or not. Some studies suggest that storms will be more frequent and more intense. Other research suggests that storms will be more frequent but not necessarily more intense. All this research has been criticized for being inaccurate, exaggerated, and alarmist and on the possible basis of relying on inaccurate or imprecise historical data.

Regardless of the connection between global warming and storm systems, extreme weather has always been a threat to data centers. If storms are to occur less often or less severely, the threats engendered by storms are only mitigated, not avoided outright. On the other hand, since it is just as likely that future storms will be as intense and as frequent – if not more intense and more frequent – the impact of the environment on data centers is just as important a consideration as data centers’ impact on the environment.

Storm-proofing a data center is mostly a matter of storm-proofing the structure it sits in. However, storm-proofing itself is not the end goal. Instead, storm-proofing is one of the means by which a data center’s reliability and continuity of service is maintained. Yes, it is wonderful that the storm-proofing prevented major damage to the data center. Even better if the preventive steps mitigates downtime due to a storm.

Of course, even the best storm-proofing of a data center cannot maintain continuity of service if the utilities the data center relies on are shut down as well. Even worse, you may not be able to find out if there is any damage, much less assess the extent of the damage when utilities are compromised, delaying any repairs.

Insuring continuity and mitigating downtime in these situations may be an exercise in developing contingency plan after contingency plan. Relying on multiple forms of contact — for instance, adding a cellular connection in addition to a network connection — and putting back-up power systems in place increase the likelihood that you can communicate with your data center in the absence of utilities. In addition, having these back-up systems can give you time to properly shut down the system if power does go out unexpectedly for whatever reason, storm-related or otherwise.

Controlling for Remoteness

Data centers are often remotely-located, a fact that allows them to be built in whatever environment is the most advantageous. However, their remoteness leaves them exposed to the elements, not necessarily because their physical structures are more exposed, but because their reliance on other infrastructures results in more potential points that are exposed to failure. Those failures could be weather- or environment-related, or they may be due to another reason entirely. But thinking about the functionality of these centers in the future not only requires forethought into how data centers might change the environment but also how the changes in the environment may affect data centers. The time to plan ahead is now.

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