Can't stand the heat? How Central Europe's datacentres are coping with the hottest summer in centuries

Despite being generally well-equipped to deal with atypical weather, technology companies in Central Europe have still faced discomfort and uncertainty during the current heatwave.
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor

For almost two weeks now, Central Europe has been experiencing one of the severest heatwaves in centuries, with temperatures hitting the high 30 degrees Celsius on a daily basis.

Earlier this month, mobile operators in the Czech Republic warned that their electricity costs during hot days like these rise by between 30 to 50 percent from the baseline due to their increased cooling requirements, online news service Financni Noviny reported. And, because heatwaves in this part of Europe often go hand in hand with violent storms, the possibility of base stations shutting down to electricity failure caused by lightning strikes is also being discussed, although the impact to customers is limited as most base stations are equipped with backup power.

In Poland, the heatwave has been severe enough that power plants have had to cut production due to difficulties with cooling. Drought has caused the main river, the Wisla, to hit its lowest level in over 200 years. Because of that, the power plants have been having problems getting the water needed to cool their equipment while the hydroelectric facility at Wloclawek is not delivering to its usual levels.

In order to prevent uncontrolled blackouts, the state power distributor PSE last week put in place energy rationing for anything using more than 300 kW, including production lines and, of course, datacentres.

During the day, companies with such facilities are legally forced to limit their energy use and need to be prepared for blackouts to occur. While a production facility can simply cut back or temporarily suspend production, datacentres don't have that luxury.

However, services that are deemed critical to society, including telecommunications, are exempt from the new rules, meaning datacentres weren't fully hit by the rationing. The rationing has since been lifted, but no one can guarantee that it won't return.

"Of course, the circumstances are not favourable," Slawomir Kozlowski, director at Exea, a datacentre services provider based in the Polish city of Torun, said. "We have been hit by the rationing as we use about 1.5 MW of power, so we need to keep a sharp eye on it." Diesel-powered generators are on constant standby in case of an outage, with a UPS used to cover the time between the blackout and generators kicking in.

However, Kozlowski says that when it comes to cooling and its associated costs, there's no need for alarm.

"Our equipment can handle anything from minus 40 degrees Celsius to over 45 degrees Celsius, so we still have enough margin here. And even if 45 degrees is reached, that doesn't mean the equipment immediately shuts down, but rather it becomes less efficient."

The situation could even prove handy for Exea, "as we are in the process of attaining a second certificate from the Uptime Institute, and auditors can now see in practice that we can keep running under difficult circumstances."

Energy costs are going up due to the need for extra cooling, but it only accounts for two to three percent of all costs on a yearly base. Those extra costs will subside, he says, "as night temperatures are already dropping, allowing us to build up more cooling reserves using free cooling".

Both equipment and employees are having to work harder to keep all parameters in line with customers' needs, says Andrzej Stella-Sawicki, technical director at datacentre provider ATMAN. Some customers might be happy when the room temperature in the server room rises to the mid-20s, while others demand temperatures to be kept around the 18-19 degrees Celsius mark. "Our datacentre admins need to keep a sharp eye on their parameters, especially when it comes to humidity, in order to prevent condensation."

Green solutions like free cooling also take a back seat under such circumstances, as cold outside air is hard to come by. It's unfortunate, as compared to traditional cooling methods, such technology necessitates "around 50 percent more" capital investment, Stella-Sawicki reckons.

But, like Kozlowski, he confirms that the current heat has not led to problems yet, and that it is unlikely they will occur even if the wave continues much longer. "Modern IT equipment can handle temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius, but we are keeping it at up to 23 degrees in our datacentres," he says. "And while we are currently using more energy, it could very well be balanced out if next winter turns out to be a cold one."

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