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SICS ICE: A playground for data centre research

Thu 6 Feb 2020 | Jon Summers

Jon Summers of RISE SICS North describes the exciting potential of a data centre where researchers can let their imaginations run wild

In the far north of Sweden, scientists have built a facility to explore the future of data centres. “We have projects that are looking at innovative control of data centres…projects that would support zero touch data centres…we have started some projects that develop real life demonstrations of the reuse of heat for district heating.” Jon Summers, Scientific Lead at the ICE data centre lab at RISE, the Swedish research programme behind the facility, tells us about some of the innovative work being carried out there.

The data centre near the campus of Luleå Technical University is a hub for experimentation and testing. Researchers can play with a wide range of technologies, including open and closed loop wind tunnels, a micro grid, powerful computers and physical infrastructure that lets them test out building design.

The academics, businesses and government agencies which use the site are conducting research into topics as diverse as “big data in the area of outer space”, high performance computing and machine learning. Summers, who will be speaking at Data Centre World this March walks us through some of the many benefits of this kind of facility.

A “unique opportunity”

The ICE lab was conceptualised as a place where any organisation (although primarily those from Europe) can conduct research that attempts to stretch the technical possibilities of the data centre. The goal is to “become a centre of excellence in the engineering and science behind data centres and their applications in this increasingly digitalised world.” Researchers are provided with a wide range of tools and technology to test their theories in a way that would be difficult or too expensive to recreate on their own.

Join Jon at Data Centre World, 11-12 March 2020, ExCeL London

PANEL: Opportunities and blockers of waste heat utilisation
11 March 2020
11:15 – 11:55

“The facility provides a unique opportunity for researchers, businesses, commercial entities or industrial suppliers to access testbeds that are not yet readily available elsewhere,” explains Summers. By and large, it is only really possible for the world’s leading commercial data centre companies to conduct the most cutting-edge data centre research as they have the power, money and bandwidth available. The ICE lab makes it possible for more people to conduct advanced data centre research.

To achieve this, RISE has taken an open source, technology-agnostic approach. For Summers, the benefits of doing so are clear: “lower hardware costs, free of lock-in to vendors, improved scaling, good quality reliable software, strength of community, transparency and speed to market.”

A focus on sustainable data centres and heat reuse

While the ICE lab provides facilities to conduct research in a wide range of fields, a particular area of interest is data centre heat usage. Summers explains why: “The sector is under scrutiny for many reasons, and an important one is around energy and sustainability.” At present, there is “gross inefficiency” in the way energy is used in the data centre system, particularly in digital processes. To that end, Summers oversees several projects which explore ways that data centres can reduce their carbon footprint, make better use of generated heat and have a lower impact on the environment.

One topic the ICE lab is currently exploring is heat reuse. Data centres are well known for generating large amounts of heat and generally this is simply funnelled into the surrounding environment. This has long been a topic of interest among data centre managers, environmentalists and local authorities – wouldn’t it be great if the data centre’s excess heat could be used to warm homes and offices nearby? Two birds could be killed with one stone, as excess heat is fed into the grid thereby reducing the amount of energy needed.

The trouble is that this is easier said than done. The most obvious solution is to use a heat pump which would funnel energy out from the data centre into nearby homes – yet heat pumps require compressors to transmit that heat. Unfortunately, compressors themselves require lots of energy to do this task, making the whole process a little redundant. “Compressors consume by far the largest proportion of the energy in transferring heat from the data centre,” Summers explains.

But the appropriately named ICE lab is exploring alternative ways of doing this. Summers describes one project in particular that is being conducted at the facility: “We have an EU Horizon 2020 funded project called WEDISTRICT,” that could provide an answer. The project “will build a demonstrator of heat reuse from a small data centre by putting fuel cell stacks in the loop as a combined heat and power source, where the fuel cells are preheated by the IT and the heat is then rejected into the district heating loop whilst powering the IT equipment at the same time.” This project should hopefully provide a reliable use case example of feeding heat generated in a data centre back into the grid.

All being well, the output of this research could then be utilised in larger commercial data centres elsewhere. Research carried out at the ICE lab should provide “detailed quantitative information” which “is important in helping the data centre sector approach new developments and projects making informed decisions.”

Insights and innovations

The great appeal of a test bed like the ICE lab is the sheer diversity of experimentation and innovation going on there. The facility provides an enormous amount of scale for different actors to try things out and come up with ideas that could go on to affect how data centres are managed across the world. “Their use can range from joint research with universities to commercial testing and validation with industrial collaborators.” This all creates the potential for some truly ground-breaking research.

Experts featured:

Jon Summers

Scientific Leader
RISE SICS North

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