Envisioning a 65-story data center

Two Italian architects have designed a data center that challenges how the structures are built. Instead of constructing a flat, sprawling complex, they are proposing a data center that reaches skyscraper heights.

At this stage, the data center designed by Marco Merletti, who works in Paris, and Valeria Mercuri, who is in Rome, is just an idea. But it's gotten recognition. The pair, who are both 28, recently received third place honors in the annual Skyscraper Competition held by architecture and design journal eVolo.

From a visual perspective, the circular, futuristic-looking "Data Tower," as Merletti and Mercuri call it, almost seems like something out of Star Trek. But it incorporates sustainable technology for efficiently cooling hundreds of thousands of servers, while increasing reliance on automation. Its ideas are grounded in existing technologies.

"Data centers today contain the majority of our knowledge, our personal information, our culture, our history," Merletti said. The content is "indispensable to us in every moment of our lives."

Data centers are not only repositories of knowledge, they are also major energy users, a factor that Merletti and Mercuri address with this design.

The data center was created with Iceland in mind, which gives it potential for use by both U.S. and European companies. It can be powered by hydropower and geothermal energy, and Iceland's proximity to the Arctic Circle means natural cooling will play a big role.

"Data centers are very complex buildings. They are continuously in evolution," Merletti said. The design is conceived "as a giant 3D motherboard," on which components can be installed, updated and changed.

The building has a modular, cylindrical design. The servers are in pod units, with 24 pods to a floor, that are moved by an automated handling system. The pods can be moved to the ground floor where technicians would service and maintain them.

The pod concept is inspired by the Car Towers at the Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany. New cars made by Volkswagen are moved temporarily into towers that automate the storage process. On a smaller scale, the towers invoke a design not unlike the Apple Mac Pro tower, Merletti said.

The data tower, as with a radiator, is designed to have the maximum contact surface with the outside. The pods hooked on to the circular structure of the tower form a series of vertical blades.

The air inside the tower is hotter than the air outside, "so in a natural way this condition created a chimney effect," Merletti said. "The hot air inside the tower goes up and sucks the cold air from the outside. The outside cold air, to enter, is obliged to pass through the pods, and in this way cools the servers."

Some of this heat is captured to warm other parts of the building, as well as to supply heat to nearby greenhouses.

The data tower can be built at a height of 50 meters. The tower that the architects designed for the eVolo contest shows what the structure might look like at 300 meters in height, or approximately 65 floors.

The large libraries of the past were built, often enough, with majestic designs that reflected their importance in society. As data centers become repositories of all our culture and knowledge, "we must not ignore them," Merletti said.


Patrick Thibodeau

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