Datacentre stands up to test of air, rain

Servers in tent resist the elements, yield insights

You've heard about datacentres in shipping containers. But how about a datacentre in a tent? And in rainy Seattle?

Enterprises are pushing the operating parameters that server vendors recommend for factors such as air temperature and humidity and finding that servers are often far hardier than they expect. The difference can mean significant datacentre operations savings.

Microsoft recently found that a little rain, uncontrolled temperature and even leaves sucked into server fans had absolutely no negative affect on servers.

In a small experiment, two Microsoft employees put five servers in a large metal frame tent outside. Christian Belady, principal power and cooling architect, and Sean James, facility program manager, ran the previously used but spare HP DL585 servers in the tent from November 2007 through June 2008 and had zero failures.

"While I am not suggesting that this is what the datacentre of the future should look like... I think this experiment illustrates the opportunities that a less conservative approach to environmental standards might generate," Belady wrote in a blog post.

Enterprises have long known that server vendors give very conservative operating parameters for factors such as temperature. Vendors prpbably do that to protect their own bottom line, even though doing so may negatively affect their customers' bottom line. "They could certify them at higher temperatures than they probably do but they would probably see higher field failure rates," says Nik Simpson, an analyst at Burton Group. "The failures might not be significant to individual companies running those servers but it could be to the vendor having to replace the servers for hundreds of thousands of customers," Simpson says.

Microsoft is not alone among companies experimenting with pushing the limits in datacentres. Intel recently published a study about a datacentre test it conducted that relied almost exclusively on outside air for cooling. Intel installed no humidity controls and only minimal air filters.

The test environment had a very similar failure rate to one using traditional air conditioning and humidity controls, Intel found. The changes could save US$2.87 million (NZ$4.17 million) annually for a 10-MW datacentre, Intel said.

Simpson expects to see companies such as Microsoft and Intel, that are building new nternet- scale datacentres, continue to conduct such experiments because of the cost savings.

But such advancements may not affect small or medium-size companies that have their own datacentres. "For a lot of organisations, the datacentre is buried deep in a building so there is no ambient air flow to use," Simpson says. Many companies don't have the luxury of building a new facility in a hand-picked location for their datacentres so must make due with existing facilities.

Both Intel and Microsoft say they plan further tests that, if they show similar results, will lead to implementations in their datacentres.

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