Data Centers Are Facing a Climate Crisis


When they record temperatures It ravaged the UK in late July, when Google Cloud data centers in London went offline for a day, due to cooling failures. The impact wasn’t limited to those near the center: the particular location serves customers in the US and the Pacific region, with outages limiting their access to key Google services for hours. Oracle’s cloud-based data center in the capital was also affected by the heat, causing disruptions to US customers. Oracle blamed “unseasonal temperatures” for the outage.

The UK Met Office, which monitors the weather, suggests the record heat was a harbinger of things to come, meaning data centers need to prepare for a new normal.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says there is a 93 percent chance that a year between now and 2026 will be the hottest on record. Nor will it be unique. “As long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise,” says Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary-General. “And alongside that, our oceans will continue to get warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea levels will continue to rise, and our climate will become more extreme.”

This weather change will have an impact on all human-made infrastructure, including the data centers that keep our planet’s collective knowledge online.

The question is whether they are ready. “From my point of view, there is a problem with the existing data center stock that has been built in the UK and Europe,” says Simon Harris, head of critical infrastructure at data center consultancy Business Critical Solutions. But it doesn’t stop there. Forty-five percent of US data centers have experienced an extreme weather event that threatened their ability to operate, according to a survey by the Uptime Institute, a digital services standards agency.

Data center cooling systems are built through a complicated, multi-stage process, says Sophia Flucker, director of UK data center consultancy Operational Intelligence. This may include analyzing temperature data from a weather station near where the data center will be built.

The problem? This data is historical and represents a time when temperatures in the UK did not reach 40 degrees Celsius. “We’re on the fringes of a changing climate,” says Harris.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we were designing cooling systems for a maximum outside temperature of 32 degrees,” says Jon Healy of UK data center consultancy Keysource. “They are more than 8 degrees higher than they were ever designed for.” Design requirements are getting higher and higher, but data center companies and the customers they work for operate as profitable businesses. Data from consulting firm Turner & Townsend suggests that the cost of building data centers has increased in nearly every market in recent years, and construction companies are being advised to keep costs down.

“If we went from 32 degrees to 42 degrees, bad,” says Healy. “You have to make everything a lot bigger to support that small percentage of the year” when temperatures rise. “It should be done with caution.”



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