Datacenter Trends

Facebook Unveils New Datacenter Cooling System

Close on the heels of Microsoft's "Project Natick" announcement, Facebook took the wraps off its own water-based cooling technology.

Facebook has been taking a lot of heat lately -- from the U.S. Congress, European lawmakers and tech-industry critics, among others -- but it looks like the social media giant will be keeping its datacenters responsibly nippy, thanks to a new, eco-friendly cooling technology the company unveiled this month.

Developed with Nortek Air Solutions, Facebook's new StatePoint Liquid Cooling (SPLC) system is a new kind of evaporative cooling technology. A common datacenter cooling process known as "direct evaporative cooling" involves evaporating water within an airstream -- in other words, blowing air over a water-filled medium. The process cools the air in the datacenter, but also adds humidity, which isn't great for the gear.

In contrast, the "indirect evaporative cooling" process uses the stream of air cooled by the water to cool a second stream of air, which carries less of the humidity.

The SPLC is an advanced version of this second type of cooling system. It uses a liquid-to-air energy exchanger in which water is cooled as it evaporates through a membrane separation layer. This cold water is then used to cool the air inside the datacenter.

The membrane layer prevents cross-contamination between the water and air streams, which keeps the water circuit clean (read: less maintenance). The membrane is also highly resilient to scale formation and poor water quality, the company says, which extends the system's operational lifespan.

The SPLC is the first cooling system of its kind to be applied to datacenters, said Facebook thermal engineer Veerendra Mulay in a blog post. Among other things, the system will make it possible for Facebook to build datacenters in locations where direct evaporative cooling doesn't work well because of such environmental factors as high levels of dust, extreme humidity and elevated salinity.

"Based on our testing for several different locations, we anticipate the SPLC system can reduce water usage by more than 20 percent for datacenters in hot and humid climates and by almost 90 percent in cooler climates, in comparison with previous indirect cooling systems," Mulay wrote. "The system will not only protect our servers and buildings from environmental factors, but it will also eliminate the need for mechanical cooling in a wider range of climate conditions and provide additional flexibility for datacenter design, requiring less square footage in order to cool effectively. While direct evaporative cooling continues to be the most efficient method to cool our datacenters where environmental conditions allow, SPLC provides a more efficient indirect cooling system for a wider range of climates."

Facebook prides itself on its efforts to develop and utilize environmentally friendly technologies. The company claims to operate some of the most energy- and water-efficient datacenters in the world. In fact, all the company's datacenters built since 2013 are powered by clean and renewable energy (CaRE). "[A]ccess to cost-effective CaRE is one of the primary factors used in selecting our new data center locations," the company says on its Web site.

Many of the cooling systems Facebook uses in its datacenters -- including the SPLC -- were developed by the company and shared via the Open Compute Project (OCP). Facebook virtually launched the movement toward shared design and development of more efficient datacenter hardware when it established the OCP in 2011 with a group of partners that included Intel, Rackspace, Goldman Sachs and Sun Microsystems Co-Founder Andy Bechtolsheim.

The project grew out of an internal Facebook effort that began two years earlier, when, drowning in Big Data, the social networking giant realized that it would need to "rethink its infrastructure to accommodate the huge influx of new people and data, and also control costs and energy consumption," the OCP Web site explains. Facebook open sourced the initiative and, along with its partners, formed the Open Compute Project Foundation, which functions as a standards body similar to the Java Community Process and the Eclipse Foundation.

Facebook is not the only tech giant that's experimenting with new datacenter cooling technology; earlier this month, Microsoft announced its own datacenter cooling advances under its "Project Natick" banner. Project Natick, which you can read about here, is an immersible datacenter that gets its cooling from being located under ocean waters.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].


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