Data Centers. Datacom Airflow Patterns

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1 The following article was published in ASHRAE Journal, April Copyright 2005 American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air- Conditioning Engineers, Inc. It is presented for educational purposes only. This article may not be copied and/or distributed electronically or in paper form without permission of ASHRAE. Data Centers Datacom Airflow Patterns By Don Beaty, P.E., Member ASHRAE; and Tom Davidson, P.E., Member ASHRAE The addition of high-density datacom equipment in data centers creates thermal management problems that must be addressed to ensure proper functioning of a data center. Understanding airflow patterns is an essential component of the solution for dealing with these high loads. This article discusses various aspects of, and constraints to, airflow patterns within a datacom room to gain a better understanding for whether the overall room environment is conducive to successfully cooling the computer equipment. Background The problem of high temperatures in data centers due to increasing power density of datacom equipment has been addressed in many articles, including recent papers published through ASHRAE. 1 The most important design criterion in a data center is the inlet air condition to the datacom equipment, as most manufacturers base their environmental specifications on the air that must be drawn through their equipment for cooling. ASHRAE s Thermal Guidelines for Data Processing Environments 2 provides recommended and allowable conditions for four classes of data center environments. Thermal Guidelines recommends a hot-aisle/cold-aisle configuration. The results presented in Reference 1 indicate that, with high-density equipment, stratification as high as 36 F (20 C) has been measured at the inlet to cabinets with a hot-aisle/cold-aisle configuration and an underfloor supply plenum. This was the measured difference between the air temperature entering the space through the floor tiles and the temperature measured at the inlet to racks at a height of 69 in. (1.75 m) above the raised floor. The main reason for this gradient is that cold air in a data center with an underfloor supply plenum enters at the floor level. Little opportunity exists for recirculation in the lower portions of the aisles because the racks generally are butted together. Therefore, most of the recirculation occurs higher in the racks where the server fans are able to draw air over the top of the racks from the hot aisle. While some recirculation is unavoidable, an analysis of airflow patterns, constraints, and environmental conditions is critical to continuing to meet recommended, or even allowable, conditions. Design Conditions and Mixed Air The recommended design conditions for datacom equipment are different than for human occupancy and have undergone significant modifications in recent years. Figure 1 shows recommended and allowable temperature and humidity conditions (per Reference 2) as measured at the inlet to datacom equipment in a Class 1 data center. To provide a frame of reference, the acceptable human comfort range and the acceptable range listed in the 2003 Handbook HVAC Applications, Chapter 17, which covers data center design, are also listed in the figure. The most stringent environmental class, Class 1, has a recommended inlet temperature range to information technology equipment of 68 F to 77 F (20 C to 25 C), and relative humidity in About the Authors Don Beaty, P.E., is president of DLB Associates Consulting Engineers, Ocean, N.J. He is chairman of ASHRAE TC 9.9, Mission Critical Facilities, Technology Spaces and Electronic Equipment. Tom Davidson, P.E., is a mechanical engineer with DLB Associates Consulting Engineers. 5 0 A S H R A E J o u r n a l a s h r a e. o r g A p r i l

2 The most important design criterion in a data center is the inlet air condition to the datacom equipment, as most manufacturers base their environmental specifications on the air that must be drawn through their equipment for cooling. the range of 40% RH to 55% RH. This recommended envelope is a subset of a larger allowable envelope, with an inlet temperature range of 59 F to 90 F (15 C to 32 C) and a humidity range of 20% to 80%. Most manufacturers have equipment operating specifications similar to the allowable range. While the conditions listed in Thermal Guidelines represent the consensus of a number of datacom manufacturers, individual equipment environmental requirements may be different and always should be checked. An interesting consideration with regard to the design conditions relates to the ramifications of mixed air, which are not always detrimental. Notice that the recommended inlet temperature range stated previously is 68 F to 77 F (20 C to 25 C). Air generally is supplied by the air-handling units at a temperature in the range of 52 F to 60 F (11 C to 16 C). This cold air can be mixed inside the data center with the (hot) air from other sources to provide cooling air at the inlet to the equipment in the recommended inlet temperature range. The (hot) air from other sources that is mixed with the cold supply air can be referred to as bypass air since it re-enters the equipment without passing through the air-handling units. The adiabatic mixing of two or more airstreams, providing a mixed air condition, is common in commercial HVAC systems. The equation used to calculate a mixed air temperature (T 3 ) is: T 3 = [(T 1 Q 1 ) + (T 2 Q 2 )]/ (Q 1 + Q 2 ) When applied to a particular server installed in a datacom facility, the equation for the mixed air temperature (T 3 ) that occurs at the inlet grille of the server could be represented as: T 3 = 72.5 F = [(55 F 400 cfm) + (90 F 400 cfm)]/(400 cfm cfm) Where: T 3 = the temperature of mixed air that actually enters the server, T 1 = the temperature of the air in the cold aisle (55 F in this example), T 2 = the temperature of the bypass air drawn into the server from other sources (90 F in this example), Q 1 = the quantity of air drawn from the cold aisle by the server (400 cfm [189 L/s] in this example), and Q 2 = the quantity of air drawn from the other sources by the server (400 cfm in this example). In this example, the temperatures of the air drawn from the cold aisle and the bypass air are well outside of the recommended inlet temperature range (these temperatures are not uncommon in datacom facilities). When they are mixed together, however, they are able to provide a temperature inside the recommended range. Rules of Thumb to Minimize Inlet Air Temperature Excursions Several parameters can affect the extent of rack inlet air temperature excursions. These parameters can be placed into the following general categories: Space dimensional parameters; Equipment placement parameters; Temperature and humidity; Addition of localized cooling; Addition of baffles; and VAV (variable air volume) considerations. Note that the discussions of the parameters in this article can best be characterized as rules of thumb. They are intended to stimulate a thought process leading to a base case that represents a reasonable approach to overall data center design. This should be followed by a parametric analysis with a CFD program or other analytic techniques to achieve optimal results. Space Dimensional Parameters Space dimensional parameters that can affect airflow and help to maintain cool inlet air conditions include: Larger cooling aisle widths allow for increased floor plenum flow of cold air in the direct vicinity of high-density datacom equipment at a reasonable velocity. Limiting the velocity of the air supplied by the perforated floor tiles provides two benefits. High velocity air tends to blow by the inlet grilles of the servers installed closest to the floor, starving these units of cooling air. Also, high velocity air in the center of cold aisles has a tendency to bypass all of the servers that face that cold aisle and blow out of the top of the aisle without providing any initial benefit. Reference 4 provides additional information. A deeper floor plenum allows for a much more even distribution of cooling air through floor tiles. It also allows the A p r i l A S H R A E J o u r n a l 5 1

3 % 60% Summer Sensible Heating Line For Max. Allowable Temp. Range Acceptable Human Occupancy Conditions, Winter Clothing (For Reference Only) 3 Winter Sensible Heating Line For Max. Allowable Temp. Range % Existing ASHRAE Recommended Envelope For Data Centers (per 2003 ASHRAE Handbook Applications, Chapter 17) Class 1 Data Center Recommended Operating Environment (2004 Thermal Guidelines for Data Processing Environments) 20% Humidity Ratio, Pounds Moisture Per Pound of Dry Air 40 Class 1 Data Center Allowable Operating Environment (2004 Thermal Guidelines) Dry-Bulb Temperature, F Figure 1: Comparison of Class 1 data center recommended and allowable operating conditions with existing ASHRAE Handbook envelope and Standard acceptable human occupancy conditions with winter clothing. static pressure to exceed the velocity pressure at all locations with perforated tiles or other openings in the raised floor. The usage and layout of underfloor plenum distribution systems, such as cabling and piping, the impact of blockages and the type of discharge from the computer room air-conditioning (CRAC) units (if used) should also be considered. Reference 5 provides a detailed review of the physics of underfloor plenum airflow. A high ceiling allows the hot and buoyant exhaust air to stratify above the datacom equipment, so that it can be returned back to the air-conditioning units rather than recycled back to equipment intakes. A ceiling level too close to the top of the racks is a major concern. Similarly, CRAC or other airconditioning equipment returns also should be located near the ceiling whenever possible. If the hot exhaust air from equipment and cabinets can be directed upward into a ceiling return plenum, this may be superior to simply having a high ceiling. The ceiling partition can then prevent recycling of the hottest air, and allow for a mixed air temperature at the inlet to the datacom equipment near the top of the racks, which is lower than it would have been without the ceiling partition. Unfortunately, in retrofit cases there may be little that can be done to increase space dimensional parameters, and other strategies must be used. Equipment Placement Parameters Placing equipment (the air handlers and/or CRAC units, the perforated tiles, and the datacom equipment) in certain configurations can be advantageous in terms of optimizing airflow patterns. Chapter 4 of Thermal Guidelines 2 deals exclusively with equipment placement. The following should be considered: The hot-aisle/cold-aisle approach as a means to segregate hot exhaust air from the inlets of datacom equipment has been addressed many places, including Reference 2. Figure 2 shows a schematic of a hot-aisle/cold-aisle configuration. Unfortunately, a hot-aisle/cold-aisle approach does not preclude recirculation, as datacom equipment fans pull air from the most convenient location. If flexibility exists in the orientation of rows of equipment, a layout that allows hot air unobstructed access to the return of the CRAC units (or other cooling system returns) should be superior to a layout with rows perpendicular to the CRAC 5 2 A S H R A E J o u r n a l a s h r a e. o r g A p r i l

4 units. Enhancing the natural flow of exhaust air from Point A to Point B should reduce the potential for the warmest air to recycle through equipment along its return path. If flexibility exists in the placement of CRAC units, place them facing hot aisles rather than cold aisles, as the underfloor velocity pressure should be minimized in cold aisles. Low velocity pressure and high static pressure are desired to maximize flow from the perforated tiles (or other air outlets) to the data center. Placement of high-density datacom equipment at floor locations that have high static pressure allows the highest possible airflow in the cold aisle adjacent to the equipment. Typically, the highest static pressures are further away from the CRAC units, or where the flow from two or more CRAC units collides. Another strategy in the placement of high-density datacom equipment is load spreading. 4 Load spreading can reduce the impact of recirculation by allowing the mixing of hot exhaust with lower temperature exhaust from nearby equipment, creating a lower overall mixed air temperature. The strategy for placement of perforated floor tiles and the percentage opening of these tiles should be considered. While tiles primarily are placed in a cold aisle, the percentage open area of the tile affects the airflow above the floor, and also affects the pressurization below the floor. Too high of a flow rate adjacent to datacom equipment inlets could create a Bernoulli effect that impedes cooling. There also may be an advantage to placing a limited number of perforated tiles in a hot aisle near a hot spot to encourage thermal dilution mixing if there are unavoidable recirculation patterns. Location of cables and cable penetrations through the raised floor and racks should be carefully considered and limited. Unused cable openings should be closed since they allow supply air to go where it is not needed. If these openings are large or frequent enough, they also allow the static pressure to bleed from the raised floor plenum. If individual racks are removed from a row, these holes will create a short-circuit path that should be blocked. Flow near the end of an aisle should be considered in detail, as recirculation can occur both around the sides and the top of a rack or cabinet in this location. Temperature and Humidity Considerations To maintain proper inlet temperature and humidity conditions, the cooling system must have adequate capacity (tonnage) and airflow capability, with discharge conditions most conducive to Rear Front Front Rear Rear Front Front Rear Cold Cold Aisle Aisle Aisle Aisle Aisle Figure 2: Schematic of hot-aisle/cold-aisle airflow. meeting datacom equipment conditions over the full height of the cabinet or rack. The following should be considered: All available information regarding the datacom equipment should be reviewed. This includes design values for heat release and airflow. This information is available from many datacom manufacturers in the form of an equipment thermal report as delineated in Thermal Guidelines. 2 With heat release and airflow information known, an average temperature rise across the equipment racks can be calculated. An understanding of thermal control systems for the installed datacom equipment is also important. For instance, a manufacturer may use a tachometer to determine if an internal fan failure has occurred in its server. If a fan on this server fails, but the server is installed in a cabinet with fans in series with the server, this external pressure source could cause the server fan to rotate at sufficient speed to keep the server s internal fan failure alarm from being generated. Generally, it is recommended that the design differential temperature across the air-handling units be no more than 80% of the design temperature difference across the datacom equipment. For instance, if the datacom equipment has an average temperature rise of 25 F (14 C), the cooling system should be designed with a temperature drop of no more than 25 F 0.8 = 20 F (14 C 0.8 = 11 C). Since this recommendation results in 20% less energy extraction for the air handlers per unit volume of airflow, the air handlers clearly have to circulate 20% more airflow than the datacom equipment for an energy balance. Unfortunately, having a cooling system flow rate greater than a datacom equipment flow rate does not guarantee that recirculation will not occur. Ideally, temperature and humidity conditions as measured at the inlets to all datacom equipment in a data center will be controlled at recommended levels (68 F 77 F [20 C 25 C] and 40% 55% RH). One methodology for achieving this is to design for a 68 F (20 C) cold aisle. 6 This approach, however, may not be the best where very high-density loads are present and colder air is needed to help maintain conditions within the allowable range. By estimating or measuring the expected temperature distribution across the rack face, a supply condition can be chosen to provide recommended (best) or allowable (acceptable) inlet conditions across the entire face of the datacom equipment. Per Figure 1, a 59 F (15 C) and 56% 80% RH discharge air condition allows for sensible heating up to 90 F (32 C) while staying within the allowable relative humidity range. A p r i l A S H R A E J o u r n a l 5 3

5 This 31 F (17 C) range may be necessary to maintain inlet temperature and humidity conditions to all servers within the allowable range. Addition of Localized Cooling Consider localized cooling for high-density loads. Localized cooling can be very efficient, as local cooling fans can typically operate at lower pressures than central air-handling systems or CRAC units. Localized liquid cooling solutions also are possible. 7 The small size of this section should not be construed to mean that this option should be lightly dismissed, but only that a detailed analysis of localized cooling is outside the scope of this article. Addition of Baffles to Direct Air & Prevent Recirculation The worst-case scenario for the development of a hot spot in a data center is the existence of an unimpeded recirculation loop. Such a loop allows hot air to recirculate continuously. This could result in unacceptably high discharge conditions. Fortunately, buoyancy effects and general mixing tend to disrupt such poor flow patterns. The most important location to place baffles, or blank-off plates, is in the equipment cabinets. Internal cooling fans in servers and other electronic equipment in these cabinets can operate at pressures of 0.5 in. w.g. (125 Pa) or more, enough to easily pull exhaust air from the discharge of a piece of equipment back into the inlet. In many cases, the front and rear doors of cabinets, installed for security reasons, can add significant resistance to the flow of air into and out of a cabinet, making internal recycling a more natural occurrence. Small gaps between racks or cabinets are also a possible short-circuit path of exhaust air, and should be blanked off if possible. VAV Considerations Variable air volume (VAV) creates a challenge in that instead of a single airflow rate through any device, there could a wide range of flow rates and pressure distributions. VAV can occur on at least three levels: Datacom equipment internal fans; Datacom equipment cabinet fans (if the cabinets have fans); and Air-handling unit supply fans. Clearly, pressure and airflow interactions can be at all three levels. While the authors leave detailed analysis of each facility to the project designer, the following points may be useful as designers consider the ramifications (pro and con) of VAV data centers. Designers should assume that the datacom equipment has VAV internal fans. The datacom equipment manufacturers have installed VAV fans that can reduce airflow either due to (a) lower ambient conditions or (b) reduced internal heat load. This reduction of airflow can affect overall data center dynamics, particularly the dynamics of airflow within an individual cabinet. If the air handler supply fans are VAV, clearly a potential exists for saving fan energy at low loads. With lowered airflow, however, both the average pressure and the pressure distribution in an underfloor environment can change. Perforated floor tiles are fixed orifice devices, at least when it comes to automatic control. Thus, a high-density area within a data center may end up with a localized shortfall of air with lowered plenum pressure, and specific portions of a plenum may drop to negative pressure relative to the main space depending on exactly how the airflow reduction is distributed among the supply fan units. Some end users have adopted an approach that supplements or replaces perforated floor tiles with equipment cabinets that draw air directly from the supply plenum. This approach can, in theory, optimize overall fan energy use as VAV cabinet fans, using cabinet discharge temperature control, only extract air from the plenum if a localized cooling demand exists. If the quantity of supply air delivered to the plenum is lower than the quantity of air extracted by the equipment cabinets, the entire plenum could drop to negative pressure. This would not only invite recirculation within the underfloor supply plenum, but cut off cooling air entirely to other areas of the data center that depend on perforated tiles to supply cooling air. Partitioning the underfloor plenum to separate cabinets that actively extract air from areas where positive plenum pressure is essential should be considered. Conclusions Clearly, many potential solutions and pitfalls exist in the goal to maintain airflow patterns that result in inlet conditions to datacom equipment within the ranges recommended by both datacom manufacturers and Thermal Guidelines. This article has highlighted some of these issues, and some schematic solutions, leaving to the project designer the more rigorous analysis needed to ensure thermal compliance. References 1. Schmidt, R Thermal profile of a high-density data center: methodology to thermally characterize a data center. ASHRAE Transactions 110(2). 2. ASHRAE TC Thermal Guidelines for Data Processing Environments. ASHRAE Special Publications. 3. ANSI/ASHRAE Standard , Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy. 4. Beaty, D., N. Chauhan and D. Dyer High density cooling of data centers and telecom facilities Part 2. ASHRAE Transactions 111(1). 5. Patankar, S. and K. Karki Distribution of cooling airflow in a raised-floor data center. ASHRAE Transactions 110(2). 6. Beaty, D. and T. Davidson New guideline for data center cooling. ASHRAE Journal 45(12). 7. ASHRAE TC Datacom Equipment Power Trends and Cooling Applications. ASHRAE Special Publications. 5 4 A S H R A E J o u r n a l a s h r a e. o r g A p r i l

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