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Energy-guzzling data centres could work just as well with less cooling

Data centres consume a huge amount of energy, but researchers have found a simple fix - let the servers run much hotter than they do currently

By Chris Stokel-Walker

18 October 2023

Data centres are normally kept at temperatures between 20°C and 25°C (68°F and 77°F)

Aleksei Gorodenkov / Alamy

Allowing data centres to run at higher temperatures could cut the amount of energy used to cool them by 56 per cent, without impacting computational performance.

High-end servers generate a lot of heat while operating, so equipment within data centres is normally kept at lower temperatures – usually by running cold water throughout the premises to cool the hot air down. Operators normally aim to keep data centres at between 20°C and 25°C (68°F and 77°F), to prevent overheating and potential damage to the equipment.

This cooling comes at a cost, accounting for one-third of a typical data centre’s total energy consumption. The rise of streaming video and artificial intelligence services, both of which require massive data centres, has brought more focus to this energy use, with efforts under way to make cooling systems more efficient.

Shengwei Wang at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and his colleagues suggest an alternative approach: just run servers at higher temperatures.

The researchers developed a computer simulation that modelled IT equipment’s performance at different temperatures in 57 cities around the world, picked to be representative of the global picture.

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They found that data centres could save between 13 and 56 per cent of the energy used on cooling by running at 41°C (106°F) compared with those running at 22°C (72°F), without significant degradation in server performance. Locations with a higher ambient temperature, such as in Brazil or West Africa, normally require the most cooling and so would allow for the greatest energy savings.

“Research that focuses on the reduction of energy consumption by data centres is very much needed, as is media coverage of the data centres’ environmental impact,” says Irina Raicu at Santa Clara University, California. “But technical improvements often involve trade-offs and, as the authors of this paper acknowledge, require careful study pre-implementation.”

Journal reference:

Cell Reports Physical Science DOI: 10.1016/j.xcrp.2023.101624