Thursday, 23 July 2015

Data Centres and Better Water Management Policies

What is data?  To many of us, it is this innocuous digital substance that floats around the internet without any tangible properties.  Indeed, you could weigh a blank CD, insert it into your computer and fill it with data, then remove it and weigh it again.  You would discover it is no heavier despite now being full.  Yet that does not mean data communications do not have a physical impact.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.

One part of the world offering living proof is southern California.  America's poster child for devastating drought is now in a scenario some experts say could mean the end of local water supplies within a year.  California is depending on an extremely wet El NiƱo winter to replenish its water supply – but what if that does not happen?  Furthermore, how are modern data communications adding to the problem?

In our drive to make data centres as energy efficient as possible, we have gambled on cooling systems relying on massive amounts of fresh water, according to a recent report in The Guardian.  In exchange for reducing power consumption, we have increased the quantity of water we use to keep data centres cool.  And in an era of intense cloud computing and internet on demand, there is no end in sight.  In California, data communications have a very direct impact on the physical environment by way of energy consumption and water usage.


Workable Solutions

California's drought provides the rest of the world with a perfect illustration of why one should find solutions to problems before those problems occur.  So now it is time for the Golden State to start exploring workable solutions.  At the top of the list should be an end to unreasonable environmental policies that have created the current mess, at least in part.

Understand that southern California is an arid region with a climate similar to Arizona.  Sustained periods of drought are common there yet environmental policies have prevented the building of any new dams in northern California for decades.  And the result?  All of the snow that falls in northern California every year melts and flows right into the ocean come spring.  That needs to change.  If Arizona can sustain itself with a properly designed and maintained dam system, so can southern California.

Where data centres are concerned, designers and builders need to start looking at other cooling systems.  One system now being used in Santa Clara is an air-cooled system that relies on outside air.  The system is regulated by computers and software, waiting for just the right conditions to cool indoor spaces.  When those conditions are met, massive ventilation systems open to allow external air in.  It has proven so successful that the campus' central cooling station either drastically reduces output or shuts down completely during air cooling periods.

Today's data centres use more water than they need to.  It is going to take a combination of better regulation and new technologies to change that.

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