Science & Technology

Microsoft ramps up plans to make its data centers less thirsty

Microsoft ramped up its commitments at present to preserve water and power in its data centers, laying out new cooling tech and techniques that would push notoriously thirsty and energy hungry servers previous their present limits. The corporate’s newest environmental pledge comes because it plans to dramatically increase the variety of data centers it operates all over the world, a transfer that would put extra stress on drought-stricken communities except the corporate finds methods to use less water.

Microsoft plans to slash the quantity of water its data centers use by 95 p.c by 2024, with the aim of “finally” eliminating water use. That builds on a dedication it made final 12 months to turn into “water positive” by the top of the last decade, which means it might replenish extra water than it makes use of for its operations. In 2020, Microsoft additionally committed to becoming carbon negative by the identical deadline, which means it plans to draw down and retailer extra planet-heating CO2 than it releases.

Microsoft additionally introduced different sustainability efforts at present that would decrease greenhouse fuel emissions inside and out of doors the corporate. It’s searching for constructing supplies for its data centers which might be less carbon-intensive, together with analysis into bricks made with algae and structural tubes made with mushrooms. It additionally previewed a brand new software known as Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, which will help organizations monitor their carbon dioxide emissions.

However the huge dedication includes the data centers. Data centers like Microsoft’s are full of servers which allow folks to retailer information, ship messages, and store and recreation on-line. All of that exercise makes use of up quite a lot of power and generates warmth. Overheating can have an effect on servers’ efficiency and reliability, however blasting them with air-con drives up electrical energy use and greenhouse fuel emissions. It’s attainable to use water to calm down servers, however water has turn into an more and more scarce useful resource in lots of the arid locations the place data centers function.

A typical data middle makes use of about as a lot water as a metropolis with a inhabitants of about 30,000 to 40,000 folks, or about 3 to 5 million gallons of water a day, says Venkatesh Uddameri, professor and director of the Water Assets Heart at Texas Tech College. Microsoft tells The Verge that its data centers use less water than that, though it varies throughout completely different areas and climates.

Microsoft’s data centers at present use adiabatic cooling, which depends on exterior air to calm down temperatures inside. It’s a system that makes use of less electrical energy than air-con and less water than cooling towers. However when temperatures rise above 85 levels Fahrenheit, exterior air isn’t very useful. At that time, an evaporative cooling system kicks in, which makes use of water. It really works like a “swamp cooler” — cooling the air by pushing it over or by way of water-soaked screens.

Microsoft at present revealed two foremost methods it plans to lean on to meet its water conservation targets. First: it researched how its servers carry out beneath increased temperatures, and located that it could actually set increased limits for when the centers’ evaporative cooling programs kick in. In cooler elements of the world — together with Amsterdam, Dublin, Virginia, and Chicago — these increased set factors might, over the following few years, do away with the necessity for water utterly.

However Microsoft’s data centers in desert areas, the place water shortage is an even bigger downside, will possible proceed to guzzle water for years longer. Microsoft says the identical technique that may get rid of water use in Amsterdam and Dublin would solely scale back water consumption in desert areas by as a lot as 60 p.c by 2024.

That’s the place the second a part of Microsoft’s plan is available in. To get its water footprint down to zero in these sizzling and dry climates, Microsoft plans to flip to a brand new approach to cool servers: submerging them in fluorocarbon-based liquid baths. Because the servers work away, the warmth they generate causes the liquid to boil when it reaches 122 levels Fahrenheit (50 levels Celsius). The boiling liquid strikes warmth away from the servers after which turns right into a vapor that rises. The vapor hits a cooled tank lid, condenses, and rains again into the bathtub. The method, known as two-phase liquid immersion, creates a closed-loop cooling system that cuts down on water and electrical energy use whereas eliminating warmth. It’s a method that the corporate says was impressed by cryptocurrency miners, who additionally use enormous quantities of power and have turned to liquid immersion cooling for computing gear.

Whereas specialists The Verge spoke to say the know-how is promising, they are saying getting it to work at scale will likely be one other problem. Microsoft simply introduced its first trial run with immersion cooling in April and says this know-how continues to be within the analysis and growth stage. Only a few data centers — most likely fewer than 2 p.c — depend on immersion cooling, in accordance to Lucas Beran, principal analyst on the market analysis agency Dell’Oro Group.

“You additionally take into consideration the size of somebody like Microsoft deploying the quantity of data centers that they’re constructing and the quantity of compute they’re deploying — that’s an enormous provide chain change. That’s an enormous operation change,” Beran says. Microsoft could have to examine and plan for a way that change will have an effect on data middle efficiency and prepare workers to work in new environments, he factors out. “It’s a really massive enterprise, however one which has some extraordinarily constructive potential outcomes.”

Microsoft tells The Verge it is going to take a phased strategy to rolling out its new cooling methods for data centers. Immersion cooling would require new, specifically designed servers, and Microsoft will await its server configurations to age out earlier than changing them in present data centers. Even the plethora of recent data centers the corporate has deliberate will possible first be constructed with hybrid cooling programs because it transitions to new immersion know-how.

Microsoft plans to construct 50 to 100 new data centers a 12 months to maintain up with demand for its cloud providers. International web site visitors is anticipated to double by subsequent 12 months, it says. That’s an enormous alternative for the corporate, but in addition a giant problem to the corporate’s new sustainability targets.

Tensions have risen, for instance, around data centers in Arizona, the place Microsoft opened up a brand new one this 12 months. After federal authorities declared the primary water shortage on the Colorado River in August, Arizona faces imminent cuts to its water provide. The cuts, to date, will primarily restrict water for agriculture, however some residents are fearful that new data centers within the area will solely intensify competitors for already scarce water assets.

The corporate will want to deal with points distinctive to every location the place it builds a data middle and pay particular consideration to locations beneath extra water stress. “There is no such thing as a one-size-fits all kind of answer,” says Uddameri. “You may turn into water constructive as an organization, nevertheless it’s not helpful when you save all of the water in a single location, as an excessive case, and also you create greater deficits elsewhere.”

Correction October 27, 11:22AM ET: This put up has been corrected to state that Microsoft makes use of evaporative cooling in its data centers when temperatures rise above 85 levels Fahrenheit exterior. A earlier model mentioned that the edge was 85 levels Celsius. We remorse the error.

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