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How Data-Center Water Cooling Is Changing the Sustainability Game

data center water cooling

  • The exponential growth of data centers is set to double within a decade, creating a construction and resource challenge.
  • Drought conditions and climate change are pushing the data-center industry to be more conscientious and sustainable.
  • BIM (Building Information Modeling) helps California data-center innovator Nautilus save time on design and analysis.
  • Nautilus’s dense, water-cooled, modular system achieves significant efficiency and density compared to standard data-center designs.
  • More sustainable data-center construction can unlock access to more efficient, faster computing for more people.

The heat generated from the Internet doesn’t come from the latest hot take, trending topic, or TikTok dance. It comes from the nearly 8,000 huge, server-filled data centers wired into the web, spanning the globe and providing the data storage necessary for digital life. Like the stars, these sites burn bright, consuming roughly 1% of the globe’s energy, more than many small countries.

Much like the digital world, the endless terabytes of data backing it up will grow—as will the constellation of data centers, which are expected to double in number in less than a decade. The solution to expanding these facilities sustainably rests on greener construction, smarter energy use, new cooling methods, and modular design to make systems more efficient.

Creating Next-Gen Data Centers

California-based Nautilus Data Technologies seeks to change the design and deployment of data facilities. They are a crucial part of digital infrastructure and are facing competing demands for exponential growth and environmental responsibility. The company is introducing a new modular facility layout informed by constant iteration via BIM (Building Information Modeling) software. This process taps into the power of water-based cooling and a replicable, factory-built framework that dramatically shortens the design and construction processes.

“Being able to fully model the heat flow within a building, as well as its electrical usage, and showcase it all in 3D is really what helps us innovate,” says Patrick Quirk, chief technology officer at Nautilus. “BIM creates a virtuous feedback loop that reduces the time spent on design and analysis.”

There’s a lot going on behind the boxy, bland exteriors of today’s data facilities. Typically, computer racks in standard data centers—designed as progressively larger, air-cooled versions of the systems that housed the original old-school mainframes—generate up to 10 kilowatts of heat.

The Nautilus data center design uses silent, closed cold-water loops, which exchange heat and rapidly transfer the heat generated by racks of servers, eliminating water consumption and lowering energy usage by 30%. It can handle 100-kilowatt racks, which effectively future-proofs the system to withstand years of tech upgrades, more powerful servers, and wider adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Removing inefficiency, this system gives the customer the choice of traditional cooling, direct-to-chip, or immersion in the data hall, all cooling equipment faster and more efficiently.

The Nautilus system also employs factory-built, standardized modular designs, which allow for quicker deployment, lower costs, and efficient operations. Quirk says the system is 70% factory-built, an efficiency that allows easy replication and more bespoke design on-site. The prefabricated modules can easily be transported and snapped together on-site, making it quicker to get approvals and construct new facilities. Nautilus CEO Jim Connaughton is excited by the opportunity it provides to easily deploy near population centers. This approach uses a denser layout of servers and no additional water usage or waste—an increasingly important resource, especially within the world of data centers.

data center water cooling
The Nautilus modular facility layout is optimized through BIM. Courtesy of Nautilus.

The Challenges of Water Cooling

The challenge of cooling these ever more powerful facilities has pushed many designers to embrace water, a heat-transfer medium that cools 3,500 times more efficiently than traditional air-conditioning systems. It makes sense: On a hot day, it’s more refreshing to jump in a pool than stand near an AC unit. And with the rapid growth of hyperscalers, users like Amazon and Meta require massive cloud-computing capabilities, so cooling energy and resources are becoming more significant, pushing leading developers to seek alternative solutions.

Therein lies a key environmental challenge, according to Landon Marston, assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, who closely studies sustainability issues within the data center industry. He found that water usage isn’t typically figured into the location of data centers, and looming drought and shortages in certain parts of the country make the footprint of such centers larger, even threatening the stability of their operations.

Municipalities are waking up to the real environmental cost of data centers, most of which lack truly sustainable operations. The Nautilus system, which doesn’t consume any water, represents a change: It’s a waterborne cooling system that doesn’t deplete local resources. “With much of the western US currently experiencing historic drought conditions, some data-center operators are beginning to think more seriously about the water requirements of their data centers and the impact on the local environment and community, as well as how water shortages present a risk to their operations,” Marston says.

data center water cooling
Water-cooled computer racks. Courtesy of Nautilus.

Nautilus systems—which can be used on land near any body of water or, like the first commissioned data center in Stockton, CA, can float on top of the water itself—showcase the Nautilus model’s adaptability. Connaughton says the ability of the modular data center to be placed on a barge allows for easy shipping across the globe, especially to developing markets in need of quick-to-assemble digital infrastructure.

The Rise of Modular Systems

Nautilus’s modular vision helps cut costs and unlock more efficient resource use. Power usage effectiveness (PUE) is a common measurement of efficiency for such facilities. A lower score represents more efficiency; this tends to be roughly 2.5 via old-school computer-room air conditioners. The Nautilus system achieves an even better PUE; the firm claims the figure never goes above 1.15.

But, ultimately, it’s not just about sustainability or saving time on the construction site. Connaughton sees sustainability as intertwined with the industry’s potential: The computing power that’s unleashed can help solve other key sustainability issues. But that won’t happen if the industry itself is depleting resources and generating extensive emissions.

“Getting the infrastructure right—and widely available—and doing it in a way that doesn’t cause significant environmental harms is essential to completing the task of elevating sustainability for everybody everywhere,” Connaughton says. “We’re at the front end of a tsunami of opportunity around digital access for everyone.”

About the Author

Patrick Sisson is a Los Angeles–based design and culture writer who has made Stefan Sagmeister late for a date and was scolded by Gil Scott-Heron for asking too many questions. His work has appeared in Dwell, Pitchfork, Motherboard, Wax Poetics, Stop Smiling and Chicago Magazine.

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