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Efficiency of Cooling Servers

One thing I had wondered was why home air-conditioning systems are more efficient than air-conditioning systems for server rooms. I received some advice on this matter from the manager of a small server room (which houses about 30 racks of very powerful and power hungry servers).

The first issue is terminology, the efficiency of a “chiller” is regarded as the number of Watts of heat energy removed divided by the number of Watts of electricity consumed by the chiller. For example when using a 200% efficient air cooling plant, a 100W light bulb is rated as being a 150W heat source. 100W to Heat it, 50W from the cooling plant to cool it.

For domestic cooling I believe that 300% is fairly common for modern “split systems” (it’s the specifications for the air-conditioning on my house and the other air-conditioners on display had similar ratings). For high-density server rooms with free air cooling I have been told that a typical efficiency range is between 80% and 110%! So it’s possible to use MORE electricity on cooling than on running the servers!

One difficulty in cooling a server room is that the air often can’t flow freely (unlike a big open space such as the lounge room of your house). Another is the range of temperatures and the density of heat production in some parts (a 2RU server can dissipate 1000W of heat in a small space). These factors can be minimised by extracting hot air at the top and/or rear of racks and forcing cold air in the bottom and/or the front and by being very careful when planning where to place equipment. HP offers some services related to designing a server room to increase cooling efficiency, one of the services is using computational fluid dynamics to simulate the air-flow in the server-room [1]! CFD is difficult and expensive (the complete package from HP for a small server room costs more than some new cars), I believe that the fact that it is necessary for correct operation of some server rooms is an indication of the difficulty of the problem.

The most effective ways of cooling servers involve tight coupling of chillers and servers. This often means using chilled water or another liquid to extract the heat. Chilled water refrigeration systems largely remove the problem of being unable to extract the heat from the right places, but instead you have some inefficiency in pumping the water and the servers are fixed in place. I have not seen or heard of chilled water being used for 2RU servers (I’m not saying that it doesn’t get used or that it wouldn’t make sense – merely that I haven’t seen it). When installing smaller servers (2RU and below) there is often a desire to move them and attaching a chilled-water cooling system would make such a move more difficult and expensive. When a server weighs a ton or more then you aren’t going to move it in a hurry (big servers have to be mostly disassembled before the shell can be moved, and the shell might require the efforts of four men to move it). Another issue related to water cooling is the weight. Managing a moderate amount of water involves a lot of heavy pipes (a leak would be really bad) and the water itself can weigh a lot. A server room that is based around 20Kg servers might have some issues with the extra weight of water cooling (particularly the older rooms), but a server room designed for a single rack that weighs a ton can probably cope.

I have been told that the cooling systems for low density server rooms are typically as efficient as those used for houses, and may even be more efficient. I expect that when designing an air-conditioner the engineering trade-offs when designing for home use favor low purchase price. But someone who approves the purchase of an industrial cooling system will be more concerned about the overall cost of operations and will be prepared to spend some extra money up-front and recover it over the course of a few years. The fact that server rooms run 24*7 also gives more opportunity to recover the money spent on the purchase (my home A-C system runs for about 3 months a year for considerably less than 24 hours a day).

So it seems that the way to cool servers efficiently is to have low density server rooms (to the largest extent possible). One step towards this goal would be to have servers nearer the end users. For example having workgroup servers near the workgroup (instead of in the server room). Of course physical security of those servers would be more challenging – but if all the users have regular desktop PCs that can be easily 0wned then having the server for them in the same room probably doesn’t make things any worse. Modern tower servers are more powerful than rack mounted servers that were available a few years ago while also being very quiet. A typical rack-mounted server is not something you would want near your desk, but one of the quiet tower servers works quite well.

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