Skanska marries 20-year-old refrigerator technology to 21st-century data centers

Upstart claims its modular data center system has a mechanical PUE of just 1.012, thanks to highly efficient cooling using refrigerator-style coils

Since 2006 (if not earlier), IT heavyweights including IBM, Dell, Microsoft, and Google -- along with companies representing a variety of industries -- have embraced the modular data center concept. Now an upstart of sorts has entered the fray with a modular data center design that could be a game-changer, if third-party tests are to be believed.

Skanska USA, the American arm of the global construction and engineering giant, has announced a new modular data center system called eOptiTrax that reportedly operates at a remarkably low mechanical PUE of 1.012. (Note the word "mechanical" preceding PUE.)

It's a bold claim -- one that Skanska is going so far as to guarantee -- and researchers from the University of Maryland are backing it. "We test systems from manufacturers across the globe," said Ming Zhang, who led the tests. "These PUE readings are at least four times more efficient than simply moving air under ideal conditions, and much more efficient than traditional systems designed to the same level of reliability."

Importantly, the 1.012 measurement reflects the system's mechanical PUE, which only takes into account how watts are being used to power and cool equipment; traditional PUE also factors in how much is wasted through a facility's power distribution system. Even so, a mechanical PUE of 1.012 is pretty impressive, considering the industry average mechanical PUE ranges from 1.4 to 1.6. The combined PUE for the system ranges from 1.07 to 1.1, according to Lee Kirby, vice president of strategic operations, which is nothing to sneeze at. (In general, PUE scores need to be consumed with a grain of salt anyway.)

The real question: How does Skanska manage the feat? Fortunately, like Facebook and Google, the company is willing to provide at least a little insight into its green data center secrets: a patented system called the eOptiTrax CDU that uses cooling coils the likes of which you would find in a refrigerator to chill racks. That liquid coolness goes in through the back of the racks, cools the machines, and enters the hot aisle; it's then recirculated.

"We've taken a 20-year-old technology and adapted to the data center," said Kirby.

This approach is less energy intensive than traditional CRAC (computer room air conditioning) units, where fans whir day and night, battling the laws of physics ( blowing cold air upward into racks) and leaving the facility feeling a bit like a meat locker. As a point of comparison, it generally requires 90 watts of power to cool a single server; Skanska says with its system, cooling a server takes 0.3 watt.

The use of cooling coils also means a significant reduction in water usage and waste, according to Skanska: 80 percent less than traditional cooling systems use.

The cooling component is just part of the overall Skanska modular data center package, which actually comes in two forms: The eHive, which is a containerized-style data center that can be set, say, behind a hospital or on a rooftop, thus freeing up otherwise valuable floor space, and the eComb, which are suited for a more traditional warehouse-style environment. Both can be expanded in modular increments of 250kW. Each rack can support as much as 60kW; customers choose which brands of IT equipment they want to use.

The ability to expand in increments is among the key selling points to modular data centers. It means you don't have to spend money on racks and equipment until you more or less need to. (It takes around 16 weeks to add new module.)

Skanska also offers software tools for managing and monitoring the data center, down to the branch-circuit level. That means a data center operator can track how effectively and efficiently a particular rack, aisle, or data center is operating at any given time. Additionally, according to Kirby, the software includes bill-back functionality that enables a data center operator to track resource usage on a per-customer basis and charge accordingly.

Skanska is relatively late to the modular data center game compared to powerhouses like IBM and HP; it's also not a well-known entity, at least here in the United States. But the company does have an interesting story to tell about the efficiency of its facilities, which translates to potentially lower operating costs, not to mention a greener environmental footprint.

This story, "Skanska marries 20-year-old refrigerator technology to 21st-century data centers," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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