Blog Post

Data Centers Caught in a Cool FLIRy

I was recently talking to Richard Donaldson (an adviser of ours at Panorama Capital) of United Layer about a novel approach to optimizing data center cooling – using forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras.

United Layer rents a FLIR camera, he told me, the kind typically used to help pilots see at night or in dense fog, to create an infrared thermal image of equipment racks in which inefficient configurations can be easily detected. Once they’re found, United Layer works with the customer to redesign their rack layout, improving equipment performance, lifetime and total cost of ownership. Of course, this process also makes it easier to cool the data center, which helps control United Layer’s operational costs. As Donaldson explained to me in an email:

I think what we can see is that the “densifying” of the racks can become rather problematic when not thought thru – drive arrays should have spacing and be placed at base of cabs or close to cooling. I think that as existing facilities continually try to pack more into racks they will begin to really see how grossly inefficient the old “monolithic” paradigm of trying to cool the whole data center really is. The thermal images allow us to see exactly how each rack layout is good or bad for future design recommendations – all the temperature sensors in the world don’t give this kind of granularity…We also wanted to see real time thermal shots of our cold row heat containment strategies to prove and further illustrate what we knew from limited data.

Using FLIR to examine each equipment rack in a data center appears to be a novel and unique approach to optimizing cooling. I’ve seen thermal scans used to examine entire buildings for thermal leaks and hotspots, but never the use of FLIR to examine actual rack layouts in such detail. While a good quality FLIR camera sells for upwards of $10,000, Donaldson rented one for $80/day — what he called “an entrepreneurial approach.”

There are other new and interesting approaches to measuring the physical environments of data centers, such as the wireless sensors and benchmarking capabilities from Synapsense. But for $80/day I’m tempted to get Donaldson to hook me up with his FLIR camera rental company so I can check out our equipment racks myself.

Image credit: United Layer

6 Responses to “Data Centers Caught in a Cool FLIRy”

  1. @Daniel

    While CFD is the current best practice for datacenter layout/design; the FLIR images provided a granularity that you can not get from a theoretical model – for example, this illustration is the front of a rack where the client has stacked storage servers on top of one another – the servers in this image did not have sufficient air flow pull (a design flaw of this particular server chassis) and thus have to either be repositioned and/or directed pro-active cooling to be funneled directly to the server positions in the rack. We would not have known this otherwise…

    Furthermore, this rack’s position in a sealed “cool” row is the anomaly as the rest of the racks all read 68 degree F at the top of rack’s input and 60 degrees at base of racks…

    Lastly, we also were able to see exactly where each “open” air space in the rack actually created “hot leaks” back into cool row that were unforeseen both by the rack designer and actual layout.

    Whilst CFD is a great tool for the drawing board, having a strict regimen of monitoring and spot checks is the only way to ensure proper air flow as per our SLA’s…all that said, we are always open to suggestions and collaboration as we certainly can learn from everyone else’s work and effort, conversely, we are always open to sharing our own lessons (we are an open book) – :-)

  2. Daniel Golding


    The stuff this will show would be a missing “blank”, a fan malfunction, that sort of thing. Limited usefulness. CFD is nice because it shows the impact of changes on the entire room airflow. Still, its tough to beat the coolness and marketing factor of doing handheld FLIR – throwing a few of these pix in your sales powerpoint will garner serious geek points.

    Still, you can get a lot of this value with a cheap infrared thermometer. Not as cool, however :)

  3. @Daniel – I’ve yet to see CFD done on individual equipment racks, but that would be pretty cool. I have seen datacenters do CFD analysis on the entire building or on a specific room, but looking at thermal images at this rack granularity is a new one to me.

  4. Daniel is spot on.
    I am not sure how much this really helps. The FLIR image isn’t going to telling you much that is really useful. If the picture is of the rear of the rack, it is only showing that the fans in the servers are doing their job, hot air is being exhausted. If that is the front of the rack (which it looks like) I can tell you, any server that is sucking in air at 89 degrees, or 131 degrees is going to have serious problems.
    United Layer buys colo from folks like DRT/365 Main/Equinix, either UL is oversubscribing the cooling capacity in their turnkey space, or did a poor job of laying out air handling in a custom build. Either way machine location in rack isn’t going to do all that much to solve it.