Conserving Water: What Datacenters Can Do To Quench The Thirst

By Justin Heyes, 18 June 2024

Malaysia is fast becoming the new datacenter hub for the region, with reports showing that the number of datacenters is expected to double from the existing 45 sites nationwide, with an additional 44 sites in the pipeline, according to Ms. Amy Wong, Executive Director for Research and Consultancy at Knight Frank (The Straits Times, 2024). Even as Singapore aims to unlock 300 MW of additional datacenter capacity by driving greater energy efficiency at existing datacenters (Datacenter Dynamics, 2024), the expectation is that within the next 2-3 years, as more sites come online, Malaysia will overtake Singapore for live capacity.

However, as this milestone is celebrated as progress for the Malaysian digital economy and may open the door for further investment in establishing independent routes for international data to reach Malaysian shores, much of the progress has been made in a single state and is starting to raise questions about the strain on water resources. While the clarion cry is for Malaysia to start incentivising new builds in other locations with an abundance of resources available such as Kedah and Melaka, both having ample water, power and proximity to subsea landing stations, it is also worth considering the current state of datacenters, why they require so much water to operate and what can be done to reduce the demand, so as to continue to make future builds in Johor still potentially viable.

Datacenters essentially facilitate the processing power behind our digital lives; over the years these hyperscale structures have evolved from the server rooms of old, in order to enable digital expansion, operating primarily on an economy of scale concept. However, this approach to powering the backbone of society has left the operation of these facilities in a somewhat precarious position. Requiring constant uptime, the racks inside datacenters are run in a precise manner – functioning at the point where they should overheat, but being constantly cooled to prevent this from happening, thereby avoiding any downtime. Over the years as the processing chips inside these racks have become more advanced, the temperatures reached have required more intensive cooling with the vast majority of this cooling requiring water as the most effective method of managing the temperatures of each rack.

Precision Cooling

One of the most prominent new technologies is precision cooling, the process involving a precise delivery of dielectric fluid to the hottest components of a server, removing the excess heat generated to moderate the aggregate temperature. Due to focusing on cooling specific element the water required could be reduced by up to 96% (Icetope, 2024). This is a highly appealing prospect, and a notable way to reduce 40% of the total energy consumption which is currently dedicated to heat dissipation (Dataspan, 2023). It was recently announced by Nvidia that in recognising the consumption of their AI racks that the next generation of racks would come pre-fitted with precision cooling technology.

Immersion Cooling

Another recent development, that has not seen as much adoption is the concept of Immersion Cooling. The system involves submerging the processors in a specialized fluid, which regulates the temperature, without requiring any external cooling. The novelty of a datacenter that runs efficiently without the need to consider heat escape, opens up the possibility of datacenters that build up, rather than outwards, however the hesitancy in committing to immersion cooling comes in the need to wholesale replace the fluid and processor if there is an issue, making it less practical than existing systems.

Alternative Solutions

Other factors to consider would be looking at addressing new viable source of water for datacenters, while these seems fanciful given water is a natural resource, and therefore finite, in Malaysia not all water sources have been developed to be suitable for use. One suggestion which has been voiced is for the government to work with developers to invest in creating viable new sources. In many other countries datacenters are required to, or often by their own initiative, contribute to water replenishment programs to prevent natural sources from being used up. In Europe new datacenters are being built with their own water sources created nearby the site, so as not to rely on local sources. And additional considerations include the development of desalination and purifying plants, which would enable states to utilise sea water specifically to supply the datacenter industry. Finally, as Singapore looks to drive existing datacenters to optimize their efficiency and reduce consumption, a proposal could be to follow suit, by requiring legacy systems to take a knock and update their systems to reduce their impact and create more resource availability for newer builds.

While current conversations surrounding water resources seem to take on the tones of those crying that “the end of the world is nigh upon us”, the reality is slightly different. Malaysia is more than one state, the country has more than ample resources to accommodate further datacenter development, while also investing in increasing available supplies in areas that have become hubs. However, at the same time for the datacenter industry, the message is clear, we need to look at reducing the impact of newer builds and begin to standardize the way we do so. This can be tricky, as new cooling systems being proposed to be the solution, come in and out of fashion, with a hesitancy to commit to one, but this needs to be done soon, or there maybe justifiable resistance to further builds later down the road.


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