Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Kubrick’s Cube

In 2001 a space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick envisages an enigmatic monolith as evidence of a higher intelligence having been present in our solar system.  He only got the date and the size wrong.

Data centres are starting to look ominously like Kubrick’s vision.  They may not yet be autonomous; indeed given that they are actually about connectivity, that idea is an oxymoron.  But in as much as they are a building type which contributes disproportionately to our requirements for electrical power, their design is very much about reducing to a bare minimum the dependence on mechanical environmental controls. 
And so it is with this one outside the city of Covilha, at the foot of Portugal's highest mountain range.
As reported on TechRepublic.com:

The moat not only captures the desire of the site's owner's, Portugal Telecom (PT), to create a distinctive design, but also reflects its environmental ambitions. The water creates a microclimate that cools the environment, as well as collecting rain for use in chillers.
The region is the one of the coldest in Portugal and the climate allows the centre to use fresh air cooling for 99 percent of the time according to PT, which expects it will need to run chillers for no more than six days of the year.
The datacentre runs at above average efficiency, with a 1.25 power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating. PUE reflects how much of the electricity used by a facility ends up powering the servers, rather than driving associated infrastructure handling cooling and power distribution. Some of the best PUEs worldwide are achieved by the likes of Facebook and Google, with Facebook reporting a PUE of around 1.05 at its Prineville datacentre.

Just under one third of the energy needed to run the site will be supplied by a photovoltaic power station sporting 1,610 solar panels.  Which kind of puts a different spin on the other side of the energy equation – the datacentre also has 12 diesel emergency generators, each capable of producing 1,875kVA of power, and supplied by two tanks holding 80,000 litres of diesel.  Apparently, in the event of an outage they can supply the facility for 36 hours.  

My perverse mind can’t help imagining over 20,000kVA generating capacity sitting idle, pretty well all the time.  Mind you, there won’t be time for those generators to moulder into picturesque remnants of a bygone age.  The useful life of the computing technology in the data centre is likely to be measured in years rather than in decades.  Which makes it all the more amusing that the architecture co-opts the imagery of eons.  But I have to admit, it looks good. 

That said, as always I would like to know a little bit more detail of why it looks as it does.  But that, dear reader, is much harder to answer.  You can find some information on how the generic ventilation systems of contemporary data centres are massaged into the vaguely cubic form of this building.  That is not what I am after.  

For instance, if I were to exercise my understanding of building physics, I would be tempted to assume that the choice of a dark black stone cladding is likely to serve a purpose other than looking like Kubrick's stellae.  My guess would be, instead, that there is a ventilated cavity behind each of the sunlit facades, taking cool air from near the water's surface and giving rise to an energetic buoyancy driven airflow which completely neutralises the solar load on those walls in summer.  

But I might be wishful thinking.  As usual, real technical detail of the architecture comes at best second to the imperatives of the hero shot photograph. 

Watch a perfect example of the usual inane video at Datacentre Dynamics.  Lots of figures, and one stupid visual analogy with a diminutive dry stone hut.
If anyone can point me at any Internet site that does try to explain this building in terms of the technology of its environmental goals beyond the generic mechanicals, I'd be grateful.

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