New Toolkit Helps Save Energy in Two Data Centers—and Potentially Many More

Data centers, dedicated computing and digital storage facilities, power a significant portion of the modern economy. Large companies operate massive data centers that underpin much of our telecommunications system and the internet. Data centers also represent a significant portion of domestic electricity use, accounting for 1.8 percent in 2016, or slightly less than the average state.

Electricity use is the most significant cost driver in data centers, often eclipsing the cost of capital and labor. This electricity serves two main purposes: powering the computing equipment itself and then cooling it. Computing energy use is minimized using techniques such as virtualization, scheduling, and load-balancing. Cooling energy use is minimized via efficient system design and optimized operation, which includes careful management of airflow within the data center. Computers have different standards for thermal comfort than humans. To a computer, air temperature matters only at its inlet. Because of this, many data centers are arranged in alternating hot-aisle/cold-aisle configurations, in which inlets face both sides of every other aisle and only those aisles are cooled. In the temperature maps below, cold aisles are dark blue whereas hot aisles are warmer green or yellow. The temperature differences between hot and cold aisles create airflows which, when not properly controlled, can result in energy that is wasted on cooling hot aisles.

In order to help data-center operators reduce cooling costs, a team led by the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder, with help from Berkeley Lab and Schneider Electric, developed the Data Center Toolkit: an open-source modeling platform that can be used to optimally manage data-center cooling and airflow simultaneously. The project was funded by a 2016 award from DOE’s Building Technologies Office (BTO).

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