When record temperatures smashed the UK at the end of July, Google Cloud’s data centers in London went offline for a day due to cooling failure. The impact wasn’t limited to those near downtown: This particular location serves customers in the US and the Pacific region, with outages limiting their access to key Google services for hours. Oracle’s cloud-based data center in the capital was also affected by the heat, causing outcome for US customers. Oracle blamed “unseasonal temperatures” for the blackout.
The UK’s Met Office, which monitors the weather, suggests the record heat was a harbinger of things to come, meaning data centers need to prepare for a new normal.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says there is one 93 percent chance that any year between now and 2026 will be the hottest on record. It won’t be a one-off either. “As long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise,” said Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary-General. “And alongside that, our oceans will continue to get warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea levels will continue to rise, and our weather will become more extreme.”
That climate change will have an impact on all human-made infrastructure – including the data centers that keep our planet’s collective knowledge online.
The question is whether they are prepared. “From my point of view there is a problem with existing data center stock that has been built in the UK and Europe,” says Simon Harris, head of critical infrastructure at data center consultancy Business Critical Solutions. But it doesn’t stop there. 45 percent of U.S. data centers have experienced an extreme weather event that threatened their ability to operate, according to a study by the Uptime Institute, a digital services standards agency.
Data center cooling systems are built using a complicated, multi-step process, says Sophia Flucker, director at UK data center consultancy Operational Intelligence. This may include analyzing temperature data from a weather station close to the point where the data center will be built.
The problem? This data is historical and represents a time when UK temperatures did not reach 40 degrees Celsius. “We’re on the edge of a changing climate,” says Harris.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we were designing cooling systems for a maximum outdoor temperature of 32 degrees,” says Jon Healy, of UK data center consultancy Keysource. “They are over 8 degrees higher than they were ever designed for.” Design terms are becoming increasingly elevated – but data center companies and the customers they work for operate as profit-driven businesses. Data from the consulting firm Turner & Townsend suggests that the cost of building data centers has arisen in almost all markets in recent years, and construction companies are advised to keep costs down.
“If we went from 32 degrees to 42 degrees, we went wild,” says Healy. “You have to make everything significantly larger to support the very small percentage of the year” when temperatures rise. “It has to be done with caution.”