3 ways crypto mining is impacting the data centre industry
Around the world - particularly in Russia, Eastern Europe and China - the global rise of crypto currency values has been driving an en masse industrialisation of the mining process. The trend has been bubbling away for several years, as the home mining rig has largely found itself edged out by hyperscale server farms comprising some of the largest data centres anywhere in the industry - all designed to mine crypto.
The demands placed on a facility built and run as a mining operation are somewhat different to those placed on a hyperscale cloud facility or enterprise data centre. Reliability isn’t so much of an issue; if a mine goes down for a few hours, money is lost, but your data centre won’t take half the websites in Western Europe down along with it.
On the flipside, density and cooling are much, much more important. To make a crypto mining operation profitable, you need to be harvesting more crypto currency (be it Ethereum, Dogecoin, or the perennial Bitcoin) than you’re paying for electricity by a significant margin. As a result, some of the most efficient cooling and hyper-dense rack architecture from the past few years - like two-stage liquid cooling - has originated as a crypto mining solution. Now, hyperscale cloud operators in particular are recognising the benefits of these innovations and applying them to other aspects of the data centre industry.
1. Liquid Cooling
Crypto data centres have always been as dense as possible, with their racks running at maximum capacity all day, all year round. By contrast, the average enterprise or cloud data centre isn’t necessarily running at peak capacity 24/7; workloads fluctuate with demand. However, as that demand has skyrocketed over the past year in particular, cloud and enterprise operators have looked to crypto’s preference for liquid cooling as a way to run data centres closer to the ragged edge of performance than ever before.
One example of this is LiquidStack. The Hong Kong startup makes a revolutionary two-phase liquid cooling solution for data centres, which was developed over a number of years inside Bitfury, one of the world’s leading crypto miners. “Bitfury is sharing our knowledge with the global data center community and we are excited that Microsoft and other internet giants can benefit from our years of experience and investment to best practice liquid cooling,” said Joe Capes, CEO of LiquidStack in an interview with Data Centre Magazine.
Now, LiquidStack is going mainstream, with substantiated rumours that Microsoft is testing their DataTank solutions across its ever-expanding portfolio of hyperscale cloud regions.
2. Denser HPC
One of the issues that liquid cooling solves is how to create ultra-dense server racks that can function at high temperatures. Crypto miners have been grappling with this problem for about a decade now, and the lessons they’ve learned are being happily adopted by the burgeoning data centre HPC market - which is swelling in response to greater AI adoption and increasingly-sizable data sets.
With the density that mining rigs can achieve, server architects are cramming hundreds of kilowatts into individual racks - although it should be noted that this is still relatively rare. A 2020 survey from the Uptime Institute still found that the average density of data centre racks was growing rapidly, however.
“We expect density to keep rising. Our research shows that the use of virtualization and software containers pushes IT utilization up, in turn requiring more power and cooling. With Moore’s law slowing down, improvements in IT can require more multi-core processors and, consequently, more power consumption per operation, especially if utilization is low. Even setting aside new workloads, increases in density can be regarded a long-term trend,” said the report.
In 2020, average rack densities of 20kW and higher became a reality for many data centre operator.
3. Sustainability Concerns
Now for the more worrying news. The industrial scale and massive power consumption inherent to the crypto mining business - and the negative attention that miners are now starting to receive from government - could point towards a concerning future for data centre operators in the wider industry.
Last week, the Chinese government announced that it would open an inquiry into the participation of Beijing’s largest data centre operators - which include the country’s three largest telecom firms - in crypto mining. At a time when the PRC government is attempting a significant reversal of its approach towards sustainability, the significant power draw of crypto mining activities may be one more hurdle than China cares to deal with.
The Indian government is mulling a blanket criminalisation of all crypto mining in the country and, in the US, the State of New York is also looking into tightening regulatory restrictions on the industry.
While crypto mining data centres are not the same as cloud or enterprise facilities, operators should be careful lest the ire of lawmakers be the latest trend to make its way from the crypto sector into the mainstream.
DUG Technology planning carbon-free HPC data centre
On Tuesday, DUG Technology (formerly known as DownUnder GeoSolutions) announced plans to build another high performance computing (HPC) data centre in the town of Geraldton, Western Australia.
The new data centre will not only be DUG’s largest data centre project to date (the company already owns and operate supercomputers in Perth, London, Houston and Kuala Lumpur, with its Texas facility winning the top prize at the Data Centre Design Awards in 2019) but will also, according to the company, be the world’s first carbon-free data centre designed for HPC use.
The site will be one of the world’s largest HPC installations, with an initial compute capacity of more than 200 petaflops, and plans in place for expansion to “multi-exaflop scale” once the proposed ten data halls are commissioned. DUG’s board has budgeted AUD5mn for the project.
Most-interestingly, the site will be the first HPC data centre in the world to be entirely powered by renewable energy. The town of Geraldton was reportedly chosen by DUG due to its ideal climate for wind and solar power generation, a fact which is “rapidly” transforming the area into “one of the world’s premier renewable energy regions.”
“The goal for the campus is to be completely powered by renewables – to accelerate science while simultaneously helping clients achieve their carbon-reduction goals and meet environmental, social, and governance (ESG) requirements,” said a DUG spokesperson on Tuesday.
Giving back in the Outback
The facility, which is being built on land scheduled to pass into the ownership of the Yamatji Nation Trust later this year as part of the Yamatji Nation Indigenous Land Use Agreement, reportedly has the “full support” of the indiginous nation’s board. Part of the project also involves the provision of opportunities and training for Yamatji people.
“As demand for HPC continues to grow exponentially around the world we must invest in world-leading, carbon-free, cost-effective HPC solutions for our clients,” said Matt Lamont, CEO and founder of DUG. “We developed our award-winning DUG Cool immersion system to reduce the energy footprint of our data centres. Having the ability to utilise this technology at scale would solidify the Geraldton campus as the world standard in environmentally-friendly HPC.