Summarizes panel discussions at Datacloud 2022 including power availability challenges, alternative sources of sustainable power, immersion cooling, and excess heat reuse. Sustainability is now table stakes for data center operators.

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Summary

Datacloud USA 2022 was held in Austin, TX, in September, with a focus on data center (DC) industry sustainability and environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG). The conference attracted 350-plus attendees from a spectrum of enterprise, cloud, colocation, and data center industry vendor companies, who partook in multiple panels and presentations.

While each panel focused on a primary theme, panel members and audience interaction expanded each topic into many related subjects, often getting deep into the weeds on challenges, solutions, and the practical reality of meeting aggressive aspirations. In this brief article, we summarize the highlights of the event.

Datacloud highlights

Power availability was a recurring conversation, often citing Dominion Energy’s Northern Virginia power constraints, occurring in some areas until new substations and 500kVA transmission lines can be powered up. The concern is that DC power demand will continue to outpace availability in more and more markets, leading to new moratoriums such as those we’ve seen in Amsterdam and Singapore. In general, panelist sentiment is that, yes, there will be issues and delays in some markets, but power availability is not an insurmountable issue.

Alternative sources of sustainable power are always part of the conversation, but modular nuclear power was discussed as it has interesting potential considering it could power entire campuses. While nuclear is viewed negatively by many, the fact is that, while not renewable, it is clean and sustainable. Panelists made it clear that the risks and hurdles are significant, and the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) isn’t likely to certify data centers and their operators like Energy Star does, as the bar will be considerably high. The combination of equipment cost and regulatory compliance, not to mention insurance, will most certainly stymie the aspiration for some time. That said, the US Department of Energy (DOE) is at work exploring the commercial use of advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), which may make it to market in some form in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Liquid cooling, the immersion kind, was covered in a session by Green Revolution Cooling (GRC) and Dell. Immersion cooling companies are quick to point out that any type of IT equipment can operate in a dielectric liquid used for this solution. However, to be clear, IT equipment requires some specific modifications and, therefore, has to be custom. For example, no spinning fans or disks can be part of the equipment; firmware and bios software must be updated; and there are special considerations for some fiber-optic connections. That said, a GRC engineer laid out a compelling case for immersion cooling, including less real estate and lower floor loading due to the higher density of equipment an immersion tank can accommodate versus standard racks.

Excess heat reuse is not a new concept, but it seems to be getting the attention it deserves, as it came up many times during the conference. Colocation service provider QScale is developing a data center campus in Lévis, Quebec, Canada, which will open its first 15MW phase in 2022. At full build, it will include eight phases and 96MW of hydro-powered capacity. Beyond their plans to build for rear-door cooling (RDHx), direct liquid cooling (DLC), and immersion cooling capability for clients, heat generated by the facility will be used by an agricultural greenhouse facility. Based on their long-term DC plans, the heat could conceivably support 100 football fields’ worth of greenhouses and grow 82,000-plus tons of tomatoes. Conceptually, it could be a story about a completely renewably powered data center using its power twice. In our experience, this is much needed to overcome regulatory hurdles. In many data center hotspots, like London, local authorities are prohibiting the popularization of data center heat reuse through unnecessary red tape and tax burdens.

Joe Kava, Google’s long-time data center chief, may be on to another pragmatic application for excess heat reuse, saying, in essence, that he supports colocation DCs providing excess heat for breweries.

Concluding thoughts

“DC sustainability is now table stakes,” as Josh Snowhorn, founder and CEO of Diamond Datacloud sponsor Quantum Loophole, put it. The hope is that eventually all data center operators will embrace and commit to advancing the sustainability of their data centers, but for colocation service providers, like Quantum Loophole, it has become a competitive imperative.

Appendix

Further reading

Data Center Thermal Management & Sustainability End-User Survey 2022 Analysis (September 2022)

Data Center Thermal Management & Sustainability Analyst Call – 2022 (July 2022)

Cloud & Colocation Services Tracker – 1H22 (July 2022)

Data Center Building Report – 2022 (June 2022)

Author

Alan Howard, Principal Analyst, Cloud & Data Center Research Practice

askananalyst@omdia.com