Warmer Data Centre, Cooler Planet?

Peter Judge

Let your servers heat up, and your data centre could combat global warming, says Peter Judge

According to the US General Services Administration, if the temperature in a data centre goes up by one degree, it can save four or five percent of the energy costs.

Meanwhile, climate scientists say if the world’s temperature goes up by one degree, the sea level will rise by two metres, and other dangerous things will happen.

These two statistics have a similar shape (though the first one is talking in Fahrenheit and the second in Centigrade). Can we link them up? Is there a connection between world climate and the climate of data centres?

Global Disaster © Kwest - FotoliaMaking the link

The first statistic is based on the fact that servers produce heat when they are used. Maintaining a low temperature means removing that heat with chillers, and that uses energy.

Using more energy obviously means higher energy bills. So it saves money if you can run your servers hotter.

IT equipment makers are working to allow this. Energy costs are a big part of the price of running data centers, so we are starting to see vendors like Dell building more tolerant servers, that can handle a wider range of operating temperatures without breaking the warranty.

That’s a good thing, because it helps data centre owners save money.

But it also helps cut their carbon footprint because of the emissions produced in making the energy used by the data centers. Most of that energy will come from burning fossil fuels, and these put greenhouse gases (mostly CO2) into the atmosphere.

If we are honest, the money is a bigger factor than the carbon footprint, but in many cases (but not all) the two things are in alignment. Use less energy, and you produce less greenhouse gas. You also save money if we are talking about energy saving measures that don’t cost much money, such as allowing your server inlet temperature to rises.

Greenhouse gases are bad, because they help the atmosphere to trap heat, raising the overall temperature of the planet. This melts polar ice and raises the sea level. It also changes the climate across the globe, so many species are under pressure.

The world’s nations tried to make an agreement (the Kyoto protocol) which would limit the temperature rise to a manageable figure, but the signs are that this failed.

This is because on a global level, the financial and environmental drivers go in opposite directions. Fossil fuels are cheaper than renewables (and have become more so thanks to the development of fracking). Reducing greenhouse gases costs more money than producing more of them.

Data centres – even while they grow at a huge rate and utterly change our lives – are still only small on a global scale (around one or two percent of global power).
But in the absence of any global success in limiting greenhouse gases, we had better be grateful for any small-scale efforts that do anything to reduce their production.

So here’s the link.

A warmer Earth is a bad thing, that will make humanity’s life more miserable.

A warmer data centre is a good thing, and may make a small contribution to limiting how warm the Earth gets.

A version of this post appeared on Green Data Center News