Intel finds significant savings by pushing the limits of free cooling

2009 Green 15: Chipmaker finds that production servers can withstand 90-degree conditions

Wouldn't it be nice if you could simply shut off the computer-room air conditioning units in your datacenter? You'd no longer be exposed to temperatures found in a meat locker -- but more important, you'd reduce your facility's energy consumption significantly if you didn't have to keep your machines chilled, resulting in lower energy bills and a smaller carbon footprint.

Notably, some datacenter operators have dabbled in running their datacenters sans artificially cooled air, relying instead on an air-side economizer. An economizer draws on outside air to cool the datacenter, then pushes the hot air that exits the machines outdoors. But use of this so-called free cooling tends to be limited to regions with temperate climates, where there's no risk to servers from harsh conditions.

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However, Intel last year performed a groundbreaking experiment in free cooling, one that provided some invaluable data as to just how resilient servers can be and how much electricity and money might be saved by reducing datacenter reliance on artificial cooling. The company tested the limits of air-side economization by allowing production servers be cooled by outside air at temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, the company challenged the perception that using outside air can be harmful to servers in that it subjects machines to excessive humidity and contaminants.

"As a leader in both technology and green initiatives, Intel needed to take a risk in the datacenter space to understand what might be possible if we were willing to challenge our long-standing datacenter assumptions," says Don Atwood, regional datacenter manager. "We believed this could change the way Intel and other companies consume energy in the future."

Intel orchestrated its proof of concept at a datacenter location in New Mexico by setting up about 900 heavily used production servers in a 1,000-square-foot trailer, which was split into two 500-foot compartments. One compartment was cooled 24/7 by a relatively low-cost, warehouse-grade direct-expansion air-conditioning unit; the other was cooled almost exclusively by outside air, though it was also equipped to be cooled by the direct-expansion chiller if the need arose.

[ Learn six ways that Google makes its datacenters greener. ]

As explained by Intel's report on this test, "We designed the system to use only the economizer until the supply air exceeded the 90-degree maximum, at which point we began using the chiller to cool the air to 90 degrees. If the temperature dropped below 65 degrees, we warmed the supply air by mixing it with hot return air from the servers."

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