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Beating the Heat: Can Southeast Asia Find Sustainable Cooling Solutions for Its Data Centres?

Written by: Izzat Najmi Abdullah, Journalist, AOPG


Asia’s data centre industry is booming.

A report by Renub Research forecasts that the Asia-Pacific data centre market will experience a significant growth trajectory. The market is projected to increase in size by 12% annually between 2023 and 2028, reaching a total value of USD $53.58 billion by the year 2028. It is no surprise that the biggest continent in the world, sitting at 44.58 million km² and hosting over 48 countries, saw a surge in the need for data centres as the increasing reliance on cloud computing and the widespread adoption of digital services across various sectors also increased.

Focusing on a particular spot within the continent, the widespread adoption of data centres in Southeast Asia, a region consisting of 11 rapidly developing countries, is also showcasing a significant boom, with revenue expected to show an annual growth rate (CAGR 2024-2028) of 7.00%, resulting in a market volume of USD $13.08bn by 2028.

Investments made by tech giants such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba Cloud and Huawei, just to name a few, highlight the growing demand for data centre services in the region and have fuelled the construction of new facilities and the expansion of existing ones, creating a robust data centre ecosystem in Southeast Asia.

Sustainable Cooling Solutions Are Needed

However, this region boasts a diverse climate influenced by various factors, making it crucial for data centre operators to adopt specialised cooling technologies and sustainable cooling solutions to address the challenges posed by tropical weather. Unlike the uniformity in weather patterns across other regions, Southeast Asia experiences a tropical climate characterised by high temperatures and humidity throughout the year.

Countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, and others in the region endure consistently elevated temperatures, often exceeding 30 degrees Celsius in April and May, marking the hottest months, with some areas occasionally surpassing scorching temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius. The tropical climate in Southeast Asia presents unique challenges for data centres, requiring innovative cooling solutions for optimal performance and efficiency.

Data Centre Dilemma

Data centres, especially massive ones, house tens of thousands of IT devices. These abundances of devices generate immense heat, roughly equivalent to the power they consume. This challenge is further exacerbated by the region’s balmy climate. Average daily temperatures range from 31 to 33°C, with humidity exceeding 90% in the mornings and even surpassing 100% during rainy seasons.

High humidity adds another problem that they need to consider. It fosters condensation, a significant threat to sensitive electronic equipment as it can lead to corrosion. Traditional air-cooling and mechanical ventilation systems, while they may be reliable elsewhere, struggle within this type of environment. To maintain the optimal operating temperature range, these systems require significant amounts of energy, leading to increased operational costs and carbon emissions.

Compounding the environmental heat challenges faced by Southeast Asian data centres is the issue of rising electricity tariffs. Data centre cooling technologies are notorious energy guzzlers. In fact, these cooling systems can be responsible for a staggering 40% of a data centre’s total energy consumption. That is almost half of the portion of total operational costs.

With electricity tariffs on the rise, data centre operators in Southeast Asia find themselves caught in a cost conundrum. Traditional cooling systems may struggle to maintain optimal temperatures in the region’s hot and humid climate, but implementing more efficient solutions often requires a higher upfront investment.

This necessitates careful optimisation strategies to balance cooling needs with energy consumption and associated costs. It also highlights the urgency to come up with sustainable cooling solutions.

Traditional Ways to Cool Your Data Centre

The optimal cooling strategy depends on several factors, including data centre size, server density, budget, and local climate. There are various cooling methods that can be used in data centres, including air conditioning, liquid cooling, and free cooling.

Despite being the most common choice in Southeast Asia due to its budget-friendliness and simple installation, air conditioning does not seem like the best option to cool your data centres apart from solutions like liquid cooling and free cooling, which offer significant energy savings and improved efficiency. In other words, it might not be one of the sustainable cooling solutions the region needs.

Sustainable Cooling Solutions Are Needed 2

The region needs sustainable cooling solutions more than ever given its balmy climate and the cooling requirements of data centres.

There are currently several ways that you can use to cool down your data centres. Here’s a breakdown of the common cooling technologies:

  • Traditional Methods:
    • Computer Room Air Conditioner (CRAC) – kind of like a home air conditioner, but less efficient.
    • Computer Room Air Handler (CRAH) – uses chilled water for cooling.
  • Airflow Optimisation:
    • Cold/Hot Aisle Containment – separates hot & cool air.
    • Calibrated Vectored Cooling (CVC) – maximises heat removal for dense servers.
  • Other Options:
    • Evaporative Cooling – uses water evaporation, but it is less effective in humid climates.
    • Free Cooling – utilises cool air from the outside, however it is limited by climate.

Although these cooling solutions may be effective in other regions, they might not be optimal for the hot, humid, tropical climate prevalent in Southeast Asia. Consequently, how can this region flourish if its data centres struggle with excessive heat?

A Cool(ing) Idea to Chill Tropical Data Centres

Well, to answer that, Singapore has taken a bold step towards sustainable data centre operations with a collaborative effort between the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore’s national research agencies, and leading IT companies, resulting in the launch of the world’s first data centre testbed specifically designed for tropical climates – the Sustainable Tropical Data Centre Testbed (STDCT).

Officially launched in November 2023, after the idea was conceived in 2021, this 770-square-metre facility has been serving as a platform for testing and developing novel cooling technologies optimised for the unique challenges of tropical environments.

As Professor Poh Seng Lee of NUS explained, existing air-cooling systems struggle in tropical climates. The already hot outside air entering the data centre renders ventilation insufficient. To maintain optimal temperatures (20-24°C) for sensitive equipment, these systems require significant energy consumption, driving up operational costs and carbon emissions.

They also introduced the STDCT roadmap, which aims to significantly reduce energy consumption by (up to 40%), water usage (30-40%), and carbon dioxide emissions (up to 40%). Additionally, it seeks to achieve a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) of less than 1.2 for combined air and liquid cooling, surpassing both the government’s mandated PUE of 1.3 and the global average of 1.5.

Hence, STDCT is testing two commonly used technologies with the aim of developing more efficient and sustainable cooling solutions. The two technologies that are being tested are:

  • StatePoint Liquid Cooling (SPLC): Co-developed by Meta (formerly Facebook) and a ventilation manufacturer, this system utilises a hydrophobic microporous membrane to create a liquid-to-air heat exchanger. This method chills water for cooling, offering superior efficiency in hot and humid environments compared to traditional air cooling.
  • Desiccant-coated Heat Exchanger: This innovative system employs a desiccant material to absorb moisture from the incoming air, essentially dehumidifying it. The desiccant is then regenerated using waste heat from the liquid cooling process, creating a closed-loop system.

However, Professor Yonggang Wen, Program Co-director of STDCT and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at NTUS, knows that these technologies still pose challenges and might become a thing of the past in the next few years; hence, the reason behind NTUS bringing in its own range of expertise for optimising operations and the design of data centres for tropical climates.

“So, we are using AI to optimise data centre operations and the capabilities of digital twins to derisk their adoption,” Wen said.

Alternatives To Be Looked At for Sustainable Cooling Solutions 

It’s widely acknowledged that the depletion of natural resources used to cool data centres is inevitable in the coming decades. Traditional methods like air conditioning, commonly employed for data centre cooling, are becoming increasingly unsustainable due to their high energy consumption and ineffectiveness, particularly in hot and humid climates.

Therefore, it’s imperative to explore alternative sustainable cooling solutions to address these challenges.

In light of this urgency, the development of diverse cooling methods capable of sustaining optimal performance in data centres becomes paramount. Here, we delve into emerging technological innovations aimed at efficiently cooling data centres:

  • AI-Powered Smart Monitoring

Perhaps this is what Professor Yonggang Wen meant when he said that STDCT is using AI to cool their data centres! While not directly a cooling method, smart monitoring powered by AI is revolutionising data centre cooling efficiency. These systems meticulously monitor temperature and humidity levels, pinpointing energy inefficiencies and allowing for real-time adjustments. Instead of constantly cooling the entire data centre, smart sensors identify “hot spots” and strategically direct cool air only to those areas. Furthermore, historical data analysis allows for predictive cooling, enabling operators to proactively plan and reduce energy waste and associated costs.

  • Liquid Immersion Cooling

Imagine submerging your servers entirely! This approach, known as liquid immersion cooling, utilises a non-conductive dielectric fluid to bathe servers. This method boasts efficiency hundreds of times greater than air cooling, allowing for much denser server packing within a data centre. This makes it ideal for High-Performance Computing (HPC) environments, where traditional air-cooling struggles with the immense heat generated. Reduced reliance on air cooling translates to significant savings on power and operational costs.

  • Geothermal Cooling

The Earth’s core holds the key to another innovative cooling solution – geothermal cooling. Just like storing food in a cool cellar, this method utilises the constant, cooler temperatures found underground. A closed-loop piping system filled with water or coolant circulates through the earth, absorbing heat from the data centre and transferring it to the ground, essentially using the soil as a giant heat sink. Google is currently experimenting with it.

Ambitious Goals

Beyond developing sustainable cooling solutions, the STDCT fosters collaboration with industry and government to create standards and best practices for sustainable data centres in the region. Professor Lee emphasises Singapore’s aspirations to become a leading green data centre services hub.

With over S$30 million invested and collaborations established with tech giants like Meta, Intel, and Dell Technologies, STDCT is poised to revolutionise data centre operations in tropical climates. These partnerships will be crucial for scaling successful sustainable cooling solutions and bringing them to market for wider adoption.

It is best to note that Singapore’s pioneering efforts in developing sustainable data centres serve as an inspiration for other tropical regions grappling with similar challenges. It is time for the other countries of ASEAN to follow the steps laid out by Singapore by establishing their own research initiatives and forging collaborations to create a more sustainable future for data storage in ever-so-hot Southeast Asia.