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Summary:

Google plans to start serving live traffic with its 100-percent seawater-cooled data center in the fall of this year, according to Google’s Joe Kava. Google will be hosting its second Data Center Efficiency Summit in Zurich, Switzerland on Tuesday.

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Google plans to serve live traffic from the world’s first seawater-cooled data center in Finland in the fall of this year, according to Google’s Joe Kava. Kava plans to discuss Google’s data center efficiency innovations at the search giant’s second Data Center Efficiency Summit in Zurich, Switzerland on Tuesday.

The seawater-cooled data center is unusual even for Google, a pioneer of experimental technology, which builds its own servers, experiments with making solar thermal receivers and created a subsidiary to buy and sell energy on the wholesale electricity markets. To create the seawater-cooled data center, Google bought a former paper mill in Finland in 2009, and set out to use the building’s massive quarter-mile long seawater tunnels to push water up into the building to cool a data center. The paper mill cooled some of its previous manufacturing systems with the seawater tunnels (and other industries have been known to do this), but up until now it’s basically unheard of to use seawater for data center cooling.

The seawater system uses complex filtration systems (it’s dirty seawater after all) made out of titanium plates, which don’t corrode as fast as other materials from the salty water. But the system needs to be able to be cleaned (as it does corrode every once in a while) without it going offline, which is something Kava said Google worked hard to implement. It’s a tricky feat to clean a system while also operating it, and it’s something companies in different industries (that aren’t responsible for powering crucial websites) don’t generally have to do (even nuclear plants get shut down for weeks for cleaning).

The heat transfer units are the heart of the cooling system, and the seawater pumps into the heat transfer system, cools the data center, and then the water itself is cooled slightly before being pumped back out to sea. Google wanted the water that was pumped back out to sea to be similar in temperature to the water that entered the system, as to have as little impact as possible on the surrounding ecosystem. “It was the right thing to do,” says Kava. Google also did extensive thermal modelling to study the tides, plant life, and seasons over a 30-year-period of the surrounding coastal area, and this information determined where the water should come in and out of the system, also to have as little environmental impact as possible.

While the seawater-system has a bit of a cool-factor, it also seemed like it was a labor of love, and something that Google isn’t advocating as a standard solution for data centers for everyone. If it was a smaller scale system, it might not have been economical, said Kava, who also added that the economics do work out because the data center is of a large enough size. Beyond that, the location of the building — on the water and in the right climate — was a rather uncommon find, and could be hard to recreate in other locations.

I asked Kava and Google’s Chris Malone if the information learned from the seawater-cooled data center might inform some speculated plans for a floating modular data center (powered by waves no less). But Malone had no comment on those speculative projects.

Given the seawater data center isn’t yet serving live traffic — but is in the testing phase — Google doesn’t know the exact PUE (a widely used efficiency metric) of it yet. Kava says it will likely be in the 1.1 or 1.2 range — really good. Google will also be detailing two other energy-efficient data centers in Europe on Tuesday — one in Ireland and one in Belgium — that don’t use chillers, but use outside air and evaporative cooling.

Google has been on the forefront of data center energy efficiency design, and as Yahoo and Facebook start to show of data center efficiency designs, too, a healthy competition has emerged.

To learn more about Google’s data center innovations, come to our Structure Event on June 22 and 23rd in San Francisco.

Image courtesy of Nesiangirl.

  1. I wonder what kind of precautions Google will be taking to protect sea life surrounding the water intakes. Article mentions efforts to minimize impact due to temperature but fails to address most common danger: intake filters and grills are notorious fish-killers at other industrial plants using once-through cooling.

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  2. 1. “it does corrode every once in a while” – har! Been over 50 years since I worked on corrosion testing of zirconium, titanium, etc. tubing used for seawater cooling.

    I doubt if the rate of attack and useful life has changed. It ain’t especially long.

    2. “intake filters and grills are notorious fish-killers” – about as much as 17 average-size bluefish. Or one poorly-run fishing boat.

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  3. Katie Fehrenbacher Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    @Marce, Not sure on the fish issue. I’ll follow up with em on that.

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  4. This is a great innovation and hopefully will prove to be a success. Can’t wait to see Google cooling also their Zurich datacenter with seawater… :-)

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  5. Avneesh S Balyan Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    Next time Google doesnt provide response, think of tsunami in Finland… ;)
    Good, they are taking 30years of data as base… :)

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  6. I am assuming that Google will test this heavily before testing traffic. They should connect up with the folks at Stanford and use their processing power to do some Folding while testing; instead of wasting the processing power during normal benchmark tests.

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  7. Brent Rockwood Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    This is not a world first. This building (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purdy's_Wharf) in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is seawater cooled and contains at least one data center (http://www.airfire.ca/content/contact-us). Not on the same scale, no doubt, but about two decades ahead.

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  8. I’ve never been mistaken for brilliant, but I’m confused. Google is taking cold water to cool a machine A, then taking the then hot water and using machine B to cool it?

    A) What is, then, cooling machine B?
    B) Why not just use machine A to cool machine B?

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    1. They dont use machine B. Instead they mix cold water to hot before putting it back to sea.

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      1. Well this is why nobody’s confused me for brilliant. :) Thanks.

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      2. 1) Where are they getting that cold water from?
        2) If cold water, used in cooling hot water coming from DC is from sea, then temperature of the mixture will be higher than sea water
        3)Bringing cooler water ( cooler than sea water) to the site to cool hot water coming DC does not make sense.

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  9. As a Webmaster one thing I would like comment on this. If they put their data center under the seawater would there servers be reliable? Probably this idea is great to enhance speed access connection. But I think this would be more expensive data centers.

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  10. >Google wanted the water that was pumped back out to sea to be similar in temperature to the water that entered the system

    I would like more details on the actual setup. If water temp in = water temp out, there is no energy gain just on the heat transfer to the sea. So they must be using massive cooling towers. Other than needing to makeup for evaporation in the system, I don’t see why they don’t use fresh water and a closed system. Dirty sea water is maintenance intensive.

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