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IBM adds air cooling for more power-efficient data centres

IBM is targeting data centre sustainability with containerised data centres that save on air-conditioning costs by using ambient air for cooling, plus analytical software for better planning.

The company is selling portable and modular data centres installed within shipping containers kitted out with acoustic and thermal insulation, fire, water and EMC protection, and sliding racks for maintenance and access. The containers were developed by Barcelona-based AST Modular.

Each data centre container then has a second container on top, housing AST's modular natural free cooling (MNFC) technology. This takes in ambient air and uses it to cool the equipment below, using an air-to-air heat exchanger to keep out dust and humidity.

An MNFC container can also be used to cool a normal data centre, said Chris Scott, service product line leader for site and facility services at IBM's Global Technology Services.

AST's chief innovation officer Marc Faig said that the data centre industry is increasingly targeting cooling systems for sustainability gains. "Forty to 70 per cent of data centre power goes into cooling. Low-power servers are only 10 to 15 per cent," he said.

He added that previous free-air cooling schemes really only started to work at below 5ºC, or latterly 10ºC, whereas MNFC can get a data centre's cold aisle to two or three degrees above ambient. This means that for a cold aisle temperature of 23ºC, anything below 20ºC ambient can work.

The combination of MNFC and a modular data centre allows AST and IBM to claim a PUE (power usage effectiveness) as low as 1.07, and even in the tropics its efficiency can beat rival technologies such as in-row cooling, Faig claimed.

"Servers still need cooling at night," he pointed out. "Even Casablanca is below 20ºC for 60 per cent of the time."

He admitted that most locations would still need additional cooling: an evaporative system cuts in when ambient is in the mid-20s, and then a chiller is needed to cope with even higher temperatures. However, in many regions the chiller might only be needed perhaps 10 per cent of the time, he said.

One of the few areas where a chiller is not needed at all is Iceland, where Thor Data Center is using MNFC alongside renewable energy supplies as part of its "mission to build the greenest data centre in the world", said managing director Jon Viggo Gunnarsson.

He said that the company has one double-height container with MNFC in its data hall now, with plans to buy several more, and also uses an MNFC box to cool its traditional non-portable data centre.

Predictive software

Alongside the air-cooled modular data centres, IBM also announced analytical software tools to help CIOs predict and plan. For example, said Scott, these tools could help gauge data centre resiliency, predict which applications are fit for virtualisation and how best to consolidate them, and assist in determining future IT strategies and purchasing plans.

He likened the new software, which he said was developed by IBM Research and will be promoted under the 'Smarter Data Centre' banner, to the predictive analytical tools that CEOs and CFOs have used for many years. 

"This is the first time IBM has used analytics to add sustainability to our data centre solutions," he said. "Data centres need to be designed to be flexible and to cope with major change, and analytics is all about predicting and managing change."

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