A KnC Miner bitcoin hashing center in northern Sweden uses shelving instead of cabinets. (Photo: KnC Miner)

High Density, Low Budget: Massive Bitcoin Mines Spring Up in Warehouses

To accommodate Bitcoin customers, C7 has rolled out a new data center design that Swenson describes as “N-0.5” that offers high-density space with lower reliability and no service-level agreement. The facility in Utah is cooled using ambient air, with evaporative cooling available for unusually warm days. The network gear and cooling equipment are on UPS backup, but the individual server power supplies are not. The facility can support high density, and Swenson says it operates at a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of 1.06.

The new design is an addition to C7’s traditional enterprise data center design, which features a redundant N+1 power infrastructure.
This tiered approach has helped C7 attract a group of Bitcoin customers using about 5 megawatts of power capacity, with another 5 megawatts slated to come online this fall. “We have more demand than we can build out,” said Swenson.

This approach reflects the Bitcoin industry’s focus on cost, rather than uptime, according to Josh Zerlan, chief operating officer for Butterfly Labs, which makes Bitcoin mining hardware.

“To build out one of these (warehouse) data centers isn’t as expensive,” he said. “You can put in $10 million instead of $100 million for this kind of facility.”

Density is major focus

“Reliability and uptime are not that big a problem,” said Zerlan. “You don’t need this huge infrastructure to support four-nine uptime. Density is the big issue. The scale and design of traditional data centers is not comparable to what Bitcoin brings to the market.”

Bitcoin mining servers can pack as much as 1 megawatt of equipment into 1,000 square feet of space, according to Eric Doricko, a veteran of Exodus Communications who now helps Bitcoin businesses find data center space. That’s a big change from the 8,000 to 12,000 square feet of space for 1 megawatt of traditional IT space.

Swenson noted that Bitcoin mining rigs occupying four rack units of space can use between 1 kilowatt and 2.5 kilowatts of electricity.

That’s why many Bitcoin vendors and miners are turning to liquid cooling. CoinTerra is working with CoolIT Systems, which provides cold plates and heat pipe technology to bring liquid cooling directly to the chip.

Liquid cooling supports more density

Ballard says liquid cooling can support power densities of 48 kW to 60 kW per rack. “From a CapEx perspective, (water cooling) is cheaper than air cooling for the same workload,” he said. “We’re seeing ROIs are much better with water cooling.”

“In the Bitcoin market, (air cooling) is a broken model,” said McGinn. CoolIT is seeing strong demand for its water cooling systems from Bitcoin mines seeking “many, many megawatts in very small places,” he said.

Other large mining operations are turning to immersion cooling. Infrastructure startup Data Tank Mining announced that it has lined up pre-orders for five modular data center containers that can each support 1.2 megawatts of capacity. Each container will house tanks filled with Novec, a liquid cooling solution created by 3M. Inside each tank, densely-packed boards of ASICs run constantly as they crunch data for creating and tracking Bitcoins. As the chips generate heat, Novec boils off, removing the heat as it changes from liquid to gas. Data Tank Mining is a Hong Kong company which works closely with Allied Control, which has built immersion systems for large Bitcoin mines.

A Bitcoin solution? Or new design standard?

In a business in which uptime is the prime directive, the low-reliability designs of these hashing centers would appear to hold little interest for enterprise users. But some technologists believe these low-reliability designs for Bitcoin infrastructure have broader application. Cloud builders like Microsoft and Google with multiple data centers have shifted reliability to the network, engineering their systems so workloads can be easily moved in the event of a data center outage. Yahoo has toyed with the idea of building data centers with no UPS or generators.

Netsolus’ Ballard believes these cheaper designs will see broader use as more companies begin to use their network to route around outages.

“I think this is the future of the data center business,” said Ballard. “We’re really seeing where data is headed about 10 years from now. We’ve been approached by several cloud storage companies that are interested in what we’re doing. Bitcoin is able to demonstrate another deployment method that works.”

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Kurt McVay

    What a horrendous waste of scarce resources. Bitcoin carbon footprint? Concentration of wealth and social stratification? Opportunity cost in lives lost to disease and starvation? Another cog in the machine of artificial intelligence that threatens humanity? So very, very wrong. Thanks for the info though.