It is conventional wisdom that computer innards don't like excessive heat, which is why most data centers are conservatively cooled with powerful air-conditioners to a temperature range of between 68 degrees and 81 degrees Fahrenheit. This theory has even got its very own law explaining it, called the Arrhenius Equation. And here's a tale of what happens when things get overheated.
But this isn't the way it will ALWAYS be, according to Mark Monroe, director of sustainable computing at Sun Microsystems. Monroe says more businesses are starting to challenge the theory that data centers must resemble meat lockers. Not only are they more readily adopting and pushing the envelope with free cooling (the practice of using outside air to keep things comfy for those servers), they're pushing the upper limits on how hot systems can run over an extended period of time.
Ditto on the product side. Right now, most major server vendors certify their systems to run at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Fahrenheit and the technology is rigged to shut down when it detects it is running too hot. But Monroe says this, too, is subject to change.
Companies like Google and Microsoft are already fiddling with turning up the thermostat and using free cooling and alternative energy sources to manage their existing data centers better. Here's a reference article from Data Center Knowledge that talks about the financial benefits of cranking up the temperature by just a couple of degrees.
These are great steps, but some companies are getting even more radical with their thinking. What Monroe is talking about is the existence of data centers that could run comfortably at levels pushing into the 90s, which would be a boon if you're locating a data center in balmy location like, say, Abu Dhabi or Dubai where oodles of corporate construction is still going on. (I know firsthand; my brother is over there.)
Mind you, we're not talking about setting servers out in the middle of the desert, but what companies ARE talking about is using a combination of higher ambient temperatures in the day time and then getting smarter about using freely available cooling methods during the night to keep costs down.
It will be a long time before this becomes a common practice, but you'll hear more about high-temperature data centers in 2009, Monroe predicts.
Meanwhile, he says the Green Grid , a consortium focused on data center best practices, is working on a map to help companies understand how many hours of free cooling might be available at particular geographic locations throughout the world. It's not available on its Web site yet, but keep an eye out.