Heating Things Up in Your Data Center

by Jenn Cano on October 28, 2013

As I sit here in front of my computer, chilled to the bone with my scarf and gloves still on, the idea of heating things up in the data center sounds pretty appealing.  Not only will this keep you from freezing while you’re working in there, you can also receive a huge financial reprieve as well.  Raising the temperature in your data center can save big money on power costs as long as you don’t nudge it too high. 

Studies have shown that raising the temperature in a data center environment can help save on energy used for air handlers and the chiller plant.  By contrast, studies have also shown that if the temperature is raised too high the server fans will kick on nullifying the gains from a warmer server room.

Raising the thermostat is the simplest energy saving move a data center can make. In fact, raising the temperature setting 1.8°F (1°C) will save two to four percent on the overall energy use of a data center.  Raising the temperature in data centers is not a new concept as it has been around for several years, but still some cling to the meat locker theory and just can’t seem to heat things up.

Companies like Google and Sun Microsystems have taken to the concept of raising the temperature to reduce the power required for cooling server-packed racks. The trend has also received a boost from ASHRAE, the industry group for heating and air conditioning professionals, which increased the top end of its recommended temperature range from 77 to 80 degrees.

Also notable, a case study Cisco said it expects to see a $2 million a year cost savings from raising the temperatures in its research labs.  In the study, Chris Noland and Vipha Kanakakorn tested the theory by raising the temperature in three of Cisco’s San Jose campus research labs.  They raised the server room and as it neared 80°F (27 C), the Cisco researchers raised the chiller water set point from 44 to 46 degrees F (6 tp 7 degrees C).   Noland said, “Optimizing the room opened the door to raising the room temperature, which opened the door to raising the chiller temperatures.” Most of the increases were implemented gradually, but in one lab the team hiked the temperature by two degrees per day for four consecutive days.  The cost savings for Cisco from this slight change in temperature would be immense a due to the large number of research labs they have.

It’s also important to note that studies have found that energy use declines as the temperature in the cold aisle increases until it hits 80 degrees.  At that point the power usage spikes because the fans kick back on.  If the fans begin to run at the higher temperatures then all the cost savings will be lost.

Despite those potential gains, user surveys show few enterprise data centers are following suit.  Even though these thermal guidelines have been around since 2008, in 2013 few data centers are even raising their thermostats to the recommended limits prescribed by ASHRAE.  “Why?” is the biggest question.  Fear or uncertainties seem to be on the top of the list.  Many colocation RFP’s from CIO’s still specify 70°F (21°C). The industry is full of sayings like,” Nobody ever got fired for keeping a data center cold.”  Despite the studies that have shown the opposite, many still fear that there will be a higher failure rate with the increased temperatures.  Even though many enterprise data centers haven’t taken to heating things up in the data center, the larger Google, Microsoft, and Intel’s of the world have, clearly showing that there must be something to this theory.

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Topics: Data Centers, Data Center

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