Data Center Airflow

For years, data center managers gave little thought to the data center air flow. That mindset seems to have changed in recent years. Why? What is driving the push toward airflow efficiency?

As data centers shift towards high-density models, it has become far more crucial for data center airflow to be closely monitored and managed properly. Inefficient cooling is no longer just an expensive problem. With newer IT equipment as high-powered as it is, ample and appropriate cooling is necessary to keep electronics running at peak performance, and to prevent failures due to overheating. The push towards lower PUE numbers persists as well, for which overall airflow efficiency is a huge factor.

What are some of the biggest data center airflow issues today, and what are the primary contributors/culprits behind those problems?

Obstructions in airflow patterns, or airflow impedance, is one of the largest contributors to inefficient cooling in data centers today. While airflow impedance can take place at the rack level as well (namely in regards to mismanaged cabling), airflow impedance is most detrimental when it occurs underneath the raised flooring. There are a number of things that could cause impedance

  • poorly managed cables,
  • illogical cabling layouts,
  • physical obstructions such as columns, pipes, etc., and the like.

Bypass air is another potential culprit. Bypass air is the cold air that does not make it to its intended location. There are a number of reasons this can occur, but most commonly, it escapes from the raised floor system rather than being routed properly into the cabinet as intended.

What are some easy and inexpensive ways for data center managers to identify airflow problems in their data centers?

Identifying airflow issues does not need to be expensive. One surefire sign of an airflow concern is hotspots. Fortunately, hot spots can be tracked down easily if you have the appropriate tools. If your data center is employing physical monitors both inside the cabinets as well as in ambient air areas, you already have accurate temperature readings to review. If you do not currently have a monitoring system in place, temperature strips that can be adhered onto inexpensive filler panels will allow you to pinpoint areas within your cabinets that are warmer than others, as will infrared thermometer guns, which can be procured for well under $100.

What more complex (and potentially expensive) solutions exist to help them get a “big picture” view of data center airflow?

If you are unsure of whether or not you have an airflow concern, and you do not have the ability or confidence to identify these issues yourself, there are companies that can perform a consultative assessment of your data center for you. While these services might be costly, they are also thorough, and will present you with the most accurate results regarding your specific situation. Services provided include identifying stranded capacity, calculating your current cooling capacity, IR thermography to identify hot spots and uneven cooling, and offering recommendations on how to resolve any airflow issues that may be occurring.

What are a few of the easiest ways to troubleshoot and solve airflow problems without spending money?

A “check-up” in the relevant areas within the data center can be a first step in identifying potential airflow issues without spending money. One relevant area is the subfloor – is there any accumulation of dust or debris that might be affecting airflow? Are there cables or other physical obstacles impeding the airflow around your CRAC units or underneath the vented tiles?

Monitoring the temperatures both inside the rack as well as in the ambient environment is also free, assuming you have the equipment in place to do so. Temperatures should be taken in three zones within the rack – top, middle, and bottom. Make sure that these temperatures are in line with the equipment manufacturer’s specifications.

You will want to check on your cooling equipment as well, which includes your CRAC units, chilled water pumps, and condenser loops – make sure that all valves, gauges and indicators/alarms are functional and operating as intended.

At the rack level, ensure that all cables within the rack are bundled neatly as they should be, and filler panels are used to maintain appropriate airflow patterns.

What are the next troubleshooting steps to take if a quick-and-easy fix either does not help or does not completely solve the problem?

If the above troubleshooting steps did not yield positive results and all cooling equipment is performing properly, you might wish to invest in some basic airflow management accessories for your data center. There are a number of affordable options on the market to help alleviate common airflow saboteurs, such as grommets to cover cable entries from the raised floor into the rack, under rack panels, to keep air from escaping the spaces between the base of the cabinet and the raised floor, and sealing tape to fill spaces in between cabinets.

If implementing such measures still does not resolve your airflow issues, you may consider consulting a specialist to assess your data center and determine the next best course of action, whether it is a rearrangement of equipment or a tweak to your cooling model.

If you have further questions about airflow, contact or call toll free 1-866-207-6631.


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