Using cold climate for cooling computer networks

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Yes, we all know the story about Facebook opening a data center in northern Sweden and using renewable energy to power it and the arctic air to chill it. But seriously, using cold climate to cool data centers and servers in general is such a great idea, and needs to be thought of more and more.

Let’s call a spade a spade. Cooling is expensive. In most cases, it’s not environmentally friendly. And when it fails, things heat up fast and problems ensue quickly. But in the northern climates, we don’t always need to use air conditioning for cooling. We can just use mother nature.

Case in point, I was once travelling to another city, also north of 60 (a saying we have here, which means north of the 60th parallel, which we Canadians consider “the north”) when I was with the telco a few years back. I was going as part of a transition team, as the company I worked for had purchased another company. I had a chance to see the ‘server room’, which was quite interesting. It was a tiny room, maybe 10 feet x 6 feet, but it had 42 rack servers running, among other power and networking equipment. Now, first of all, it was loud as hell in that room. Too loud. Second, it was cold as hell too. But not from air conditioning, no. From an open window. You see, it was the middle of February, and the temperature that day was -47 degrees C (which Google says is -52.6 F). There simply wasn’t a need for air conditioning, mother nature did a fine job all on her own.

As we continue to grow things like cloud-based services that require larger concentrations of servers and computing equipment, we really need to think about physical locations and where we can take advantage of things like climate. Alaska already has 4 under-sea fiber optic lines running straight from Anchorage right down to Seattle. With infrastructure like this already in place, it makes complete sense to explore options like arctic data centers.


Martin Lehner

Martin Lehner is an technology professional working for an IT services firm in Whitehorse, Yukon (Canada). He has been working in the technology field for over a decade. With a degree in Business Admin and numerous industry certifications, Martin leads a team of IT professionals that provide third party support for clients. Originally starting a company to offer web development services, Martin quickly realized that clients wanted the entire spectrum of technology services. When Martin is not at work (which is not often, since his company offers 24/7 support), he is busy at home spending time with his family.

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  1. Nicholas Fusco July 9, 2014 at 8:48 am

    I’m intrigued: with temperatures this low how do they ensure the room has a uniform enough temperature to prevent condensation?

    • Martin Lehner July 9, 2014 at 10:08 am

      Our cold is a very, very dry cold. I’m talking dry to the point where if I don’t run a humidifier in my home, I’ll dip below 5% RH (relative humidity). I’m only guessing this is how they avoided condensation. Honestly though, I don’t know, as I only got to see the room once and only very briefly. I think if one were to use this natural cooling method, some equipment would still be required to, as you said, make sure the cold gets uniformly distributed.

  2. Katy Pillman July 9, 2014 at 9:10 am

    For any computer, using mother nature for cooling is a great idea. If you live near poles, your computer will run more faster without overheating compared to living near the equator.

  3. Eli Etherton July 9, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    On the converse side I’ve heard the manufacturers are trying to get the equipment to run well in higher temperatures. I know a data center around here that lets it get up to 90 F because they say their equipment can handle it…

    • Martin Lehner July 9, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      Yep, and if you look at Google’s study on hard drive failure rates, they couldn’t prove any real correlation between increased failures and increased operating temperatures.

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