Düsseldorf The extreme heat in California is not only a great burden for people and nature, but also for technology. Twitter is currently feeling this: according to a report by the TV channel CNN, a data center in the capital Sacramento has failed – because of the “extreme weather”, as it says in an internal e-mail.
The company is moving to other data centers. In the event of further outages, however, the online service may not be able to continue to be offered to all users, a manager warns the employees. All updates that are not urgent will therefore be postponed. The motto seems to be: Don’t take any risks.
Oracle and Google were less happy in July. When the thermometer rose to more than 40 degrees in the UK, the two companies had to shut down data centers for several hours after cooling systems failed – as a precaution to protect the servers. Cloud services were particularly affected.
In Europe, the heat may be over for now. However, the record summer of 2022 has shown that global warming poses problems for Internet service providers and data center operators, for example, because cooling systems reach their limits during periods of heat or electricity generation stalls. And now, as a result of the conflict with Russia, problems still threaten in the winter.
“The risk of experiencing a nationwide blackout in Germany is higher than a few years ago,” warns Günter Eggers of the Association of the Internet Economy Eco. A blackout, especially in winter, would have “serious consequences for almost all aspects of our civilized life”.
“The industry considers the technical and organizational preparation for a power outage lasting up to three days or more as an essential part of its service,” says Eggers. However, it is completely unclear whether the measures will still work if the employees can no longer reach their jobs due to failed transport options.
Fear of power outages
Germany is an important location for data centers, especially Frankfurt: numerous companies have settled near the large Internet node De-Cix. Despite all the efficiency gains that the industry is making, energy demand is growing strongly: according to an analysis by the Borderstep Institute, electricity consumption in 2020 was 16 billion kilowatt hours (kWh). In 2018, there were still 14 billion.
In view of the energy crisis, the economy is concerned about security of supply. A stress test by the Federal Ministry of Economics recently came to the conclusion that “hour-by-hour crisis situations in the electricity system in winter 22/23 are very unlikely, but currently cannot be completely ruled out”.
The industry sees itself as being equipped for such situations. There are “extensive contingency plans to protect our global data center infrastructure, networks and systems,” says Jens-Peter Feidner, Managing Director of Equinix Germany, a leading provider of data centers. Therefore, one has a “high degree of reliability and redundancy”, even in the event of unexpected power outages.
In view of the war in Ukraine, the company has taken additional measures, for example, to have enough diesel for the emergency generators that start up in the event of power outages. “We assume that we don’t have to get by with diesel for more than a few hours or, at worst, a day,” says Feidner. However, one is prepared for the emergency, to have to bridge a longer period of time.
Nevertheless, the Bitkom association, in which companies from IT and telecommunications are organized, demands that data centers with systemically relevant IT infrastructure be “prioritized” in contingency plans. Because operators of data centers are “enormously” threatened, especially the small plants. So far, the plans only apply to larger sites with a connected load of more than 3.5 megawatts.
Heat is enough for whole neighborhoods
In addition to emergency care, cooling is a major issue for companies. Hundreds or even thousands of servers are in use in their data centers, which send e-mails, transmit videos or train algorithms. A by-product of these arithmetic operations is enormous heat.
The cooling of servers, storage and networks is therefore a major cost when operating data centers. The market research institute “Next Move Strategy Consulting” estimates that spending on cooling systems will increase from a good ten billion US dollars in 2019 to around 34 billion US dollars in 2030.
The importance of refrigeration technology is increasing even further. Because even in countries with moderate temperatures, there are more and more frequent periods of heat due to climate change. This summer, for example, in the UK, the thermometer rose to 40 degrees. This is especially true for other parts of Western Europe, including Germany.
The problem: when building the data centers in these countries, factors such as heat and water availability were not taken into account, says British series founder and researcher David Mytton, who deals with sustainable IT in his publications. As a result, some data factories are reaching their limits, such as Google and Oracle in the UK in the summer.
Now it is necessary to retrofit the systems and design new ones differently – especially since modern data centers require more electricity due to the growing data volume and thus the requirements for cooling are increasing. “The life cycle of the data centers is long, they sometimes run for decades,” he emphasizes.
Construction ban for Google due to lack of water
An example: A data center with water cooling alone requires several million liters of water per year for cooling. The researcher David Mytton calculates: a medium-sized plant with a capacity of 15 megawatts needs as much as three hospitals or more than two golf courses. This is manageable for an entire country. However, there is considerable controversy in areas with water shortages.
For example, in Neuenhagen in Brandenburg, right on the border with Berlin: according to a report by the Berlin-Brandenburg Radio (RBB), the responsible water association vetoed when Google wanted to open a location. The consumption was estimated at 1.3 million cubic meters per year, not much less than at the Tesla factory in nearby Grünheide. According to the supplier, too much for the region.
Therefore, awareness of the problem is growing in the industry. This is shown by a survey by the Borderstep Institute among around 120 experts, including many data center employees: according to this, two-thirds expect that climate change will have a high or very high impact on the construction and operation of the plants. Nobody wants to experience an incident like Twitter right now.