China and “Datathermal Energy”

Hutong West
Letting the Sunshine In
0909 hrs.

Much of my March was spent working with clients who are thinking through some of the issues facing the growing data center market in China. For the uninitiated, a “data center” is a place that houses anywhere from one to tens of thousands of servers. This blog sits in a data center, your bank information sits in a data center, there are a lot of them, and these places are growing.

Little wonder. One delightful quote from Smithsonian.com suggests why.

“From the year 2003 and working backwards to the beginning of human history, we generated five exabytes–that’s 5,000,000,000 GB – of information.

By last year, we were cranking out that much data every two days.

By next year, we’ll be doing it every 10 minutes.”

That quote was from two years ago. Draw the curve in your mind, and you can figure that, conservatively, today we could be generating five exabytes of data every five minutes. Not all of that is going to sit in phones, laptops, external hard drives, thumb drives, or those little SD cards that we stick in our digital cameras. Much of it has to sit in data centers.

The Great Heat Sink

Which is fine, until you consider that data centers suck energy the way blue whales suck krill: in massive quantities, and with large amounts of undesirable waste at the end of the process. In the case of data centers, that waste comes in the form of heat, which then demands more energy to power cooling, which in turn generates heat. The bigger data centers get, the more heat we are talking about. And data centers are getting quite large indeed, measured in millions of square feet of servers stacked like so much electronic cord wood.

Some data centers have started addressing heat as a resource, rather than a waste-product: IBM’s Swiss data center heats a pool; Telehouse in the UK is heating homes in London’s Docklands district; and Notre Dame’s Center for Reserch Computing is heating the flowers of a local municipal greenhouse with the heat from a rack of high-performance computing nodes.

Not everyplace where there are data centers needs heat, though. Some places simply need energy. As any engineer will tell you, where there is heat, there is potential energy. The key will be to capture enough heat so that it can be efficiently turned into energy, for example through steam turbines. Energy generated like this – through the waste heat of data centers, we will call “data-thermal energy.”

Data-Thermal China

China is a natural place for the development of data-thermal energy. The country is early enough in the cycle of development for data centers to start designing its largest server farms to capture and channel heat efficiently. And scale will not be an issue in China. Leaving out government-run data centers entirely, some commercial data centers, like one 6.3 million square-foot beast under construction in Langfang just outside of Beijing, will have more floor space than the Pentagon.

The ability to capture and use waste heat efficiently also opens the prospect of cutting down on air-conditioning costs. If the heat can simply be blown – or sucked – away from the servers and into a central collection point for energy generation, the need to actually cool the air should abate a bit.

There is considerable engineering work to be done, but this is a worthy (if not essential) direction of thinking for the people designing and growing China’s server farms. It will demand imagination and discipline: the old way of doing things – stack ’em high, chill ’em down, and blow the hot air out the window – is cheap and pervasive. As the costs of energy grow and sustainability becomes more important, however, Big Data will need to start seeing itself as a utility, not just a customer.