The Impact of Global Warming On IT

As the Earth's temperature rises and demand for power escalates, IT professionals will find it increasingly more difficult to keep their equipment cool and their networks running.
Most people who acknowledge the reality of global warming tend to focus on its environmental and meteorological effects. But rising temperatures also can have a serious impact on modern computing technology, creating a number of physical and economic challenges for organizations and networks.

Excessive heat can wreak havoc on equipment and personnel. Most server rooms and data centers have air conditioning (AC) units* installed to reduce temperatures to acceptable levels based on the requirements of the equipment used. Some data centers are running so much equipment that their cooling needs are substantial and a failure in the AC system can be catastrophic in terms of either outright failure or higher-than-normal component failure rates.

As a result, we've learned the importance of dedicated AC systems and monitoring to trend temperature and humidity levels and generate alarms when thresholds are exceeded.** Groups in high-reliability situations have even built in redundancy on their AC units and installed power backup to ensure the data center doesn't bake during a power outage. Ensuring cooling during a power failure is often overlooked and can result in an unplanned shutdown due to overheating.

The problem is that we will see more such risks as the environment warms. As temperatures rise, AC systems will have to work harder than ever to lower temperatures to acceptable levels. This means that power requirements are going to increase.

Increased Demand, Decreased Efficiency

Moreover, large AC units have to dump their heat into the atmosphere and, as the already-hot surrounding air is heated further, efficiency will decrease. If you've ever stood next to cooling systems running, you will notice they generate a tremendous amount of hot air. For groups running self-contained portable/temporary AC units, they should ensure that the exhaust is vented to the outside of the building, otherwise they will be heating the very air the system is trying to cool.

As the demands for power increase, higher prices will be inevitable. This will affect budgets as actual expenditures may well exceed budgeted amounts. If relationships don't already exist with the local power company, contacts should be developed and pricing forecasts discussed, along with what the utility is doing to address power requirements in the area, its continuity plans, and how calls should be escalated.

More air conditioning causes an increased strain on the power network and increases the likelihood of power grid failure. A transformer may blow, a line may burn out, etc. Moreover, the power company may be forced to implement rolling blackouts or even emergency shutdowns to protect equipment. Bear in mind that sizable portions of the power infrastructure were not designed for today's consumption levels. For a whole variety of reasons -- cooling being a major one in the summer -- we are using a tremendous amount of power.

Hotter temperatures will directly impact the power utilities. As they try to react to higher demand, there will be accusations of poor planning when scenarios related to global warming have not been sufficiently thought out. While it is easy to pin blame, to be fair it is hard to plan for something you've not encountered before. Once it happens, you know what to expect and how to prevent a particular type of incident from occurring again.

Have An Action Plan

IT needs to plan for ways to reduce temperatures in data centers. The following are some of the actions that are possible:

  • Perhaps the easiest, make sure that unnecessary equipment is not running. This includes monitors. Investigate remote power switches if necessary.
  • Review what power management capabilities the systems have relative to business needs and then develop policies regarding power management settings.
  • Investigate using cooler-running power supplies. Google reportedly pays a premium for power supplies that run cooler, knowing it will recover the costs by lower electric bills.
  • Understand what your ideal temperature band is. It is not cost effective to cool a room more than is needed.
  • Have a professional who is experienced in data center design and cooling review the current layout and see what options exist to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
  • If a building roof is black, investigate having it painted or sealed using a white finish to reflect heat vs. being a giant solar heater.
  • If an AC unit hasn't been serviced in a long time, have it inspected to ensure it is running as efficiently as possible. There may be filters that need to be cleaned or replaced, belts tightened, refrigerant levels corrected, and so on.
  • Verify the capacity of the current cooling systems and ensure it will meet current and planned requirements. Some of the systems may already be running at, or beyond, capacity.
  • Ensure all data centers, server rooms, and other critical areas have temperature probes installed. Be sure to purchase and install them with both alerts and trending to avoid heat-related incidents caused by either cooling system inadequacy or failure.
  • Review the temperature trend information and take it into account when performing capacity planning and budgeting for the following year.
  • Review continuity plans and verify there is sufficient cooling capacity during outages. This includes ensuring that the systems will have adequate power as well and not shut off when power is lost.
  • It is easy to brainstorm ideas and then rank them according to risk and cost effectiveness.

    For final consideration, with the higher air temperatures melting glaciers and warming waters, it is predicted that the number and severity of storms will increase. Gulf and coastal states are watching this closely. The resulting weather will affect not just environmental controls in the data center, but the continuity of operations for organizations and entire economies. Having current and tested business continuity plans in place is always a wise idea.

    There aren't any easy answers on this topic. Groups need to plan and mitigate their risks. Not only do we need to react and deal with the threats it introduces, we also must think how, as nations, corporate citizens and individuals, we can reduce global warming.
    Note: More information on global warming is available here.
    * Technically, the units are referred to as heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, or "HVACs." As the article is focused on global warming and cooling, the emphasis has been placed on the "air conditioning."

    ** It is advisable to monitor temperature and humidity. Many of the network enabled probes feature both temperature and humidity sensors that then report the data back via SNMP. In this article, the focus is on temperature but during reviews of climate control, be sure to understand required temperature and humidity levels both of the equipment and the media in the data center.

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