Lack of Water is Chilling Reality for California Data Centers

Lack of Water is Chilling Reality for California Data Centers

Drought and lack of energy are forcing companies to look at ideal locations for data centers such as Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Jorge Balcells is Director of Technical Services for Verne Global.

Being in the limelight is a pretty comfortable place for California. As the home to Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the spotlight usually shines pretty brightly on whatever is happening in the state. These days the focus is on the severe drought conditions California is currently experiencing and the data center industry, like many others, is paying particularly close attention. While water is the issue, this is really just one of the most recent examples of location-based infrastructure issues facing the data center industry. How are CIOs and data center managers finding innovative alternatives for coping with these types of issues? One answer, decoupling data centers from the locations where corporate headquarters are located.

As we know, up to 40 percent of power costs are allocated to helping keep servers cool in data centers. In California and other western parts of the country, areas that have relatively cool climates and low humidity were particularly attractive for establishing data centers, which led to a building boom in the dry desert mountains from eastern Washington state to Phoenix, Arizona. While these options are good for lowering energy costs, there are extensive water costs tied to a commonly used technique called adiabatic, or evaporative cooling.

Adiabatic cooling is used to extend the hours available for free cooling at certain ambient temperatures. With this process, millions of liters of water are evaporated and must be replaced in this open-loop scenario to cool down servers within the data center. In looking at a data center in Reno, Nevada, running a 1 megawatt IT load, 24/7 for a 12-month period, the results show that in an average year, the ambient air temperature exceeds 18°C for 2,285 hours or 26.1 percent of the year. During this time, the evaporation portion of the cooling process is active and the total water consumed over the year will be 2.54 million liters or, on average, 212,000 liters per month. This is a large amount of water consumption for any location, much less an area suffering from an extreme drought.

While the problem is a deficit in water in states like California and Nevada, other locations are experiencing their own unique infrastructure issues. In the UK, the National Grid has reported only a 3 to 4 percent power surplus for 2015. Companies wanting to scale data center deployments to support High Performance Computing (HPC) or Big Data Analytics, among other things, are limited by the amount of energy available. For other locations, such as Siberia, where there is an abundance of free cooling, the issue is having enough high-tech workers available to support a fully established data center industry. Power availability and a qualified workforce are key factors today in the data center site-selection process.

Data centers are being built in locations that weren’t even considered viable 10 years ago. Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have become ideal data center locations due to their immunity to the core infrastructure limitations found in other areas: there is abundant and renewable energy, 365 days a year of ambient free cooling, and an available high-tech work force. In Keflavik, Iceland, for example, the average ambient air temperature never exceeds 18°C and as a result, no water is used in the evaporation process.

While water is clearly an issue in California today, constant environmental changes will always yield data center challenges for locations that are reliant on instable factors. The fact that companies are starting to welcome the notion that data centers do not have to be tethered to the cities or regions where the company is located will provide CIOs with many more options in how they manage their data into the future.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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