Datacentres field enormous quantities of data each day, unceasingly engaged in the transfer, storage, and processing of personal, commercial, scientific and governmental data. The emoticon that pops up on a WhatsApp message, that image of Cristiano Ronaldo accessed by his 4 million+ followers, data heavy IoTs such as home assistants and intelligent burglar alarms, are all made possible by round-the-clock operation of data centres. Commercial establishments are beginning to shift the bulk of their operational data processing to so called cloud servers located at distant data centres. Cities transitioning to automation based civic services and “smart” infrastructures too are likely to require increasing data centre support in the coming years.  

While the largest share of the world’s data centre (DC) requirements continues to be met by a relatively small number of facilities located in parts of the US and Europe, the trend appears to be towards greater proliferation of such centres. For instance, Reliance, Sify, NTT, NxtGen, Trimax, Nxtra by Airtel, STT, CtrlS, and ESDS have already established datacentres in Karnataka, with investments by Web Werks and Teleindia Networks of about $95.8 million and $12.8 million respectively towards their upcoming centres. [1]

While datacentre development spells good news in terms of greater efficiency, self-reliance and security, there are lessons to be learnt from the challenges that have arisen forexisting DCs.

Besides human error, cybercrime and UPS system failure have been known to cause data centre outages. However, the one factor contributing to data centre outage that is of immediate and arguably the greatest concern is that of rising temperatures, worldwide, even in historically cold regions.[2]  Air conditioners pushed to their limits under extreme temperatures can trigger a power outage, causing the entire data centre to lose power. For instance, Google and Oracle were forced to shut down a section of their UK based data operations on July 19, 2022, for about 10 hours, owing to the unprecedented heatwave in the UK, with temperatures reaching a record 40 degree Celsius.[3] According to a report by Bloomberg, some data center operators in London had to hose their air-conditioning units down with water in order to keep the facility cool.[4]Hospitals were unable to access medical records due to IT outage during the heatwave.[5] The Loudon County data centre in the US which shifted its unit to Lulea in Sweden, located about 70 miles from the Arctic circle, still requires about 500 giant fans to keep their systems at operable temperatures.[6]

Given the enormous dependence of automation driven organizations,world over, on data centres, standalone or distributed, it is crucial that these AI life support systems remain operational at all times. Indeed, with an estimated power outage cost of $9000 per minute [7], datacentres and their clients can ill-afford downtimes.

Note that data centres face a double whammy of ambient heat due to global warming as well as heat produced through the operation of the data centre machinery itself which places a significant load on their cooling systems. (Regular updates on IT outages worldwide may be obtained here).

As environmental temperatures, data operations and the resulting thermal output continue to increase simultaneously, it may become necessary to look beyond conventional power dependent cooling methods so as to ensure that these data centres remain up and running. 

Architectural cooling through the use of innovative structural designs and materials offers an alternative approach to air conditioning. A data centre housed within such an intelligent construction would help reduce the probability of outages caused through overheating, and the corresponding losses to those relying on the data centre.  

The concept of a self-regulating, temperature-controlled building, while not a novel one, historically, has found relatively few takers in modern times. A revival of indigenous non-powered lighting and ventilation techniques such as those applied by architect-innovator, Padma Shri Dr. Laurie Baker would seem to be called for. Dr. Baker’s constructions include the Centre for Development Studies (Trivandrum, 1971) where a cooling system was created by placing a high, latticed brick wall near a pond that uses air pressure differences to draw cool air through the building.[8]

Passive cooling systems based on the vernacular architectures of Kerala have been the focus of qualitative and quantitative analyses by Dili et al [9] who make a case for the prompt adoption of such systems. Data centre outages can have devastating consequences and while the reversal of environmental warming remains an exceptionally challenging goal, minimization of its impact may be achieved through non-electric cooling practices. Given that colder regions around the world are beginning to experience temperatures more typical of warm countries such as India, an adequately developed indigenous cooling program may present new opportunities for export and tech collaborations.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research

Featured Image source: Telecom Review

References

  1. https://cio.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/data-center/bengalurus-data-center-ecosystem-to-witness-demand-push/92726414
  2. https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/07/20/1056271/europe-heat-waves-air-conditioning/
  3. https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/news/cooling-failure-brings-down-google-cloud-data-center-in-london-on-uks-hottest-day/
  4. https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/news/uk-operators-use-hosepipes-to-cool-data-centers-as-temperatures-pass-40c/
  5. https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/news/uk-hospital-experiences-it-outage-during-heat-wave/
  6. https://lifelinedatacenters.com/reliability/data-center-downtime/data-center-outages/
  7. https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/global-warming-data-centres-to-consume-three-times-as-much-energy-in-next-decade-experts-warn-a6830086.html
  8. https://architectuul.com/architect/laurie-baker
  9. Dili, A. S., Naseer, M. A., & Varghese, T. Z. (2010). Passive environment control system of Kerala vernacular residential architecture for a comfortable indoor environment: A qualitative and quantitative analyses. Energy and Buildings, 42(6), 917–927. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.ENBUILD.2010.01.002
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Dr Monika Krishan's academic background includes a Master’s in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA. Her research interests include image processing, psychovisual perception of textures, perception of animacy, goal based inference, perception of uncertainty and invariance detection in visual and non-visual domains. Areas of study also include the impact of artificial intelligence devices on human cognition from the developmental stages of the human brain, through adulthood, all the way through the aging process, and the resulting impact on the socio-cognitive health of society. She has worked on several projects on the cognitive aspects of the use and misuse of technology in social and antisocial contexts at SERC, IISc as well as the development of interactive graphics for Magnetic Resonance Imaging systems at Siemens. She is a member of Ohio University’s Consortium for the Advancement of Cognitive Science. She has offered services at economically challenged schools and hospitals for a number of years and continues to be an active community volunteer in the field of education and mental health

Dr Monika Krishan
Dr Monika Krishan
Dr Monika Krishan's academic background includes a Master’s in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA. Her research interests include image processing, psychovisual perception of textures, perception of animacy, goal based inference, perception of uncertainty and invariance detection in visual and non-visual domains. Areas of study also include the impact of artificial intelligence devices on human cognition from the developmental stages of the human brain, through adulthood, all the way through the aging process, and the resulting impact on the socio-cognitive health of society. She has worked on several projects on the cognitive aspects of the use and misuse of technology in social and antisocial contexts at SERC, IISc as well as the development of interactive graphics for Magnetic Resonance Imaging systems at Siemens. She is a member of Ohio University’s Consortium for the Advancement of Cognitive Science. She has offered services at economically challenged schools and hospitals for a number of years and continues to be an active community volunteer in the field of education and mental health

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