Thermal management in 2016: where we’re heading

There are several key trends to consider in data center thermal management.

By John Peter (J.P.) Valiulis, Liebert Thermal Management, an Emerson Network Power March 28, 2016

With 2016 underway, I see five trends dominating discussions of data center thermal management:

1. Cooling the edge

The growth of colocation and cloud computing has made edge computing more important, as companies strive to provide high bandwidth content, reduce latency, and enhance the mobile experience. Managing remote network closets and server rooms now occupy position of higher priority among information technology (IT) managers.

IT managers seek better ways to remotely monitor the environmental conditions within these spaces, view the status of their equipment, and, when problems arise, quickly assign people to fix them. Real-time monitoring and workflow management via mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, will provide managers with a higher level of protection and security, resolve alarms more quickly, and free up technicians to focus on other tasks.

2. Upgrading for capacity and efficiency

We estimate that in more than 80% of enterprise data centers, cooling energy costs can be reduced by between by as much as 50%. A recent survey revealed that half of all data centers have or will perform thermal retrofit upgrades to their systems by the end of 2016.

The most common upgrade is the addition of variable capacity components (fans and compressors), to adjust cooling capacity up and down with the IT load. Reducing the speed of fans can lower energy costs by as much as two-thirds.

In addition, energy rebates from utilities and local governments are now available in every state, which helps deliver a faster return on investment. Rebates and efficiency gains together can provide a payback within months for most thermal system upgrades.

3. Water conservation

Water conservation is becoming a hot topic in data centers. Data centers that can minimize the use of water for cooling purposes will be able to fulfill not only economical and operational objectives, but sustainability objectives as well.

Pumped refrigerant economizers that use no water are becoming more prevalent. A recent survey of engineers reveals that more than half of them believe pumped refrigerant economization will become the primary technology over the next 5 years replacing chilled water systems.

4. Revolution in thermal controls

Another important change gaining acceleration in the industry is the deployment of intelligent thermal controls. These new systems are highly sophisticated and developed using human-centered design practices to ensure data is available where and when people expect it.

These controls provide the highest level of protection and coordinate and harmonize multiple units across the data center. They monitor hundreds of unit and components, include automated routines lead/lag and cascading, and avoid exceeding unsafe operating thresholds through self-healing capabilities. This can reduce thermal system energy usage by up to 50%, compared to legacy systems.

5. System performance accountability and certification

Decisions about optimizing thermal performance will increasingly be made at the system level, instead of just the component or unit level. Focusing on only optimizing the performance of individual cooling unit components or individual units can be very misleading. When making a decision to purchase equipment, the performance difference between cooling units might be only 5% to 7%. But when multiple units are managed as a system at the data center level, companies can improve performance by 30%, based on how the units interact and work with each other.

This enhancement is made possible through intelligent system controls that use machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and advanced algorithms to model performance and estimate costs, enabling holistic, system-level analysis, and decision-making.

Another trend in system performance is testing standardization and certification. In the past, there was no certifying body or government organization to bring accountability into the for data center cooling market for benchmarks around reliability and efficiency. Today, the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), is certifying the capacity and efficiency of data center cooling equipment based on industry standards from ASHRAE and from federal efficiency regulations. States, like California, are increasingly enforcing additional guidelines as well.

Each of these five trends will impact data centers of all sizes, some sooner than others. They will lower costs and improve performance. The end result will be superior functionality, a more productive and efficient environment, and satisfied customers.

John Peter (J.P.) Valiulis is vice president of marketing for Liebert Thermal Management, an Emerson Network Power business.