What Google can teach colleges about servers

Increasing internet use, the proliferation of streaming video, and the need for more powerful servers has colleges and universities seeking new, efficient ways to cool those all-important servers.

cooling-serversCampus IT departments, especially as officials face near-constant budget challenges, have largely turned away from what was once a common and straightforward way to keep server rooms at a reasonable temperature: Blast air conditioning into those rooms at all hours of the day.

The practice, according to surveys, was once particularly prevalent in the hottest parts of the US, including the southwest.

Finding ways to cool servers is not a challenge unique to higher education, of course. It’s a problem faced by internet giants such as Google and Netflix that have adjusted to constantly increasing web usage worldwide — adjustments that could help schools save energy and more effectively cool campus servers.

Google’s server-cooling strategies — which were an industry secret until recently — could be useful for colleges large and small. Google’s cooling method is design-based, as the company uses curtains instead of walls in its expansive server rooms, taking a decidedly austere approach.

The flexible curtains better direct the incoming cool air to areas that need the most cooling. That’s a far cry from server rooms full of walls and inefficient airflow.

Space also becomes an issue when a campus turns to the cloud for data storage, requiring fewer servers for day-to-day operations. This has left some server rooms with space that no longer needs to be cooled, according to the Data Center Journal.

“If the footprint of your equipment is shrinking, maybe owing to increasing use of cloud-based services, you may have a growing ‘blank’ area in your data center,” wrote Jeff Clark, a writer for the journal. “If so, you could also be cooling space that doesn’t need it, reducing efficiency. By walling off this excess space (and possibly using it for other purposes), you can reduce the area you must cool and thereby save cost.”

GCN, which tracks the IT sector, including best practices for managing and cooling servers, recently documented Google’s strategy for cooling air that can reach triple digit temperatures as servers churn in a confined space.

(Next page: Beyond higher education)

“Once the hot air that has been heated by the servers to about 120 degrees reaches the top of the rack, it flows into a series of stainless steel pipes filled with cold running water,” according to GCN. “That brings the air back down to room temperature before expelling it into the main room. Then that air, which is controlled for humidity and filtered, is recycled back into the racks from the bottom.”

Many universities, including Georgia Tech, have searched for energy-efficient cooling strategies that could be adopted well beyond higher education.

Technologists at Georgia Tech have studied ways to cool high-performing computer centers designed to run large simulations and process enormous amounts of data — two functions that had a major impact on the local energy grid.

“Rather than junking the old machine, Georgia Tech decided that we could recycle it and use it for energy-efficient IT research along with a host of other uses,” said Karsten Schwan, director of the school’s Center for Experimental Research in Computer Systems (CERCS).


Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Oops! We could not locate your form.