Data Center Airflow Management Principles, Benefits, and Tips

Posted by Robert Faulkner on January 3, 2024

Data center managers have two primary objectives: meeting uptime requirements and minimizing operational costs. Both of these objectives are directly impacted by thermal management, which is, in turn, tied to airflow management.

Heat is the enemy when it comes to optimizing the data center. Overheating can cause equipment to fail, so effective data center cooling systems are critical. However, overcooling the data center is expensive and wastes energy. Airflow management helps ensure that chilled air reaches equipment and is not mixed with hot exhaust air so that it can dissipate as much heat as possible.

Data Center Airflow Principles and Components

In a perfect traditional data center environment, chilled air passes through the IT equipment, and hot air is exhausted out the back. The hot air rises into the ceiling plenum and is drawn into the computer room air conditioner. It is then recirculated back into the IT equipment. 

The perfect data center doesn’t exist, so operators must take steps to optimize airflow. The key is to provide just enough space for proper air circulation and close any gaps or openings that could send air to undesirable locations. It’s also important to prevent chilled air from mixing with hot exhaust air.

Components of airflow management include:

  • Panels to block open spaces between cabinets and open rack units.
  • Brush grommets to seal areas around cable cutouts.
  • Structures or curtains that enclose the hot and cold aisles (hot/cold aisle containment).
  • Chimneys that vent hot air outside or into the ceiling plenum
  • Perforated and solid tile management.

Because so many variables can impact airflow management, operators should look at the data center holistically. These components should be combined as part of an overarching strategy to optimize air circulation.  

6 Data Center Airflow Management Tips

You don’t need a degree in fluid dynamics to manage airflow properly. A few simple principles can help keep a lid on cooling costs while minimizing hotspots and other thermal problems.

1. Arrange racks and cabinets in a hot-aisle / cold-aisle configuration.

It all starts with the right data center layout. Racks and cabinets should be positioned such that the front of one row faces the front of the next row. This creates the cold aisle. The next aisle will be hot — the back of one row will face the back of the next row. This arrangement makes it easier to direct chilled air to the front of the equipment and pull hot air away from the back.

2. Install aisle containment.

Arranging the equipment isn’t enough. Because racks and cabinets don’t extend to the ceiling, hot air will go over the top of the row and mix with chilled air in the next aisle. Aisle containment systems create a physical barrier to reduce the mixing of hot and cold air. In essence, it boxes in the chilled air in the cold aisle while allowing the hot air to rise into exhaust vents to be discharged outside or into the ceiling plenum.

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3. Focus chilled air where you need it.

Cooling the data center isn’t the same as cooling a home, where the goal is a pleasant temperature throughout. In the data center, air diffusers should be positioned to direct chilled air to the equipment, and more ductwork added if necessary. In-row and rackmount cooling systems go further by allowing you to place the cooling supply where you need it.

4. Seal gaps to minimize leaks.

Leaks around cable cutouts can cause airflow bypass and mixing of hot and cold air. Grommets should be used to seal those gaps. It’s also important to choose cabinets that minimize air gaps and install blanking panels to seal open rack units. Blanking panels should also be used to close any space between cabinets. 

5. Set up racks and cabinets properly.

Equipment should be installed so intake vents face the front of the cabinet. For networking gear with side-to-side airflow, a rackmount side air distribution unit can be used to move chilled air from the front to the intake vents on the side of the equipment. In either case, power distribution units should be mounted and cables managed such that they don’t block airflow. Vented doors can further facilitate airflow, and fans can be added to increase the volume of air that moves through the cabinet.

6. Consider where and how to place perforated tiles in raised floor environments.

In raised floor environments, cold air is commonly routed through perforated floor tiles, and their configuration can significantly impact cooling effectiveness. Consider placing compute-intensive, high-density server cabinets above a high-flow perforated floor tile for highly targeted cooling. Low-utilization cabinets with network hardware and patch panels can cool with standard perforated floor tile or even sit on solid tiles, depending on cooling needs. It’s common to see configurations with one or two rows of cold air from perforated tiles or staggered perforated and solid tiles in a single aisle.

How Enconnex Can Help

Enconnex offers a comprehensive suite of airflow management solutions, including aisle containment, cooling systems, racks and cabinets, and components and accessories. Our flagship data center cabinet, InfiniRack, is designed to facilitate healthy airflow. Its dual-integrated PDU channels allow for recessed PDU mounting and more space for airflow within the cabinet, and cable openings in the equipment rails are sealed with flexible plastic grommets that mitigate bypass airflow. Let us help you maximize uptime while minimizing costs by improving airflow in your data center. Get in touch today.

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Posted by Robert Faulkner on January 3, 2024

Robert Faulkner is the Vice President of Engineering and Operations at Enconnex. He comes from a strong background in product management with over 20 years in the IT industry. He currently holds an MSME and CDCD certification. He earned his MS degree in Mechanical Engineering at University of Nevada, Reno.

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