When there’s no land available, the only way to build is up. A government-backed project in Singapore is considering how to maintain the island city-state’s status as a data center hub, by building multi-story data centers, and keeping them energy efficient despite the local climate.

Spurred by a possible shortage of land for data centers, the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) has signed an agreement with Huawei and Keppel Data Centres to conduct a joint technical feasibility study for a high-rise green data center building, touted as the first of its kind. But is it really needed?

Singapore is unquestionably a data center hub, but it faces two major limitations: its hot tropical climate, and a scarcity of land. Last year, the Singapore authorities made an effort to address the former problem, announcing an experimental tropical data center; this latest announcement is a clear bid to address the latter issue.

singapore skyscraper tall building thinkstock photos sakdawut14 533235954 tall
– Thinkstock / SAKDAWUT14

The high-rise data center

The study will explore the possibility of saving land by building a data center more than 20 stories high, using innovative architecture that can significantly reduce energy use or increase efficiency, to improve the PUE rating of Singapore’s best data centers by as much as 10 or 20 percent. 

It will also look at the internal design elements of a high-rise data center operating in a tropical climate. The project will evaluate using a network of sensors, better server rack and data hall designs, as well as evaluating new approaches to using physics for energy efficient cooling.

The issue of land

But is the cost of land an issue? Based on publicly available data by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and using industrial land as a guideline, cost ranges from just below a thousand dollars per square meter to a few thousand dollars depending on location.

This means that data centers built at remote parts of Singapore could enjoy land prices that are a fraction of those at more central or popular locations. However, it must be pointed out that not all industrial land is ideal for data centers.

As in the city of Hong Kong, there are clusters of data centers across the island nation of Singapore, and the situation is compounded by considerations such as distance from military and civilian airports, and distance from the petrochemical hub on Jurong Island. Proximity to the few data centers which have exceptional connectivity – or the ability to lay a conduit to them – is also an important consideration.

And while the government parcels out land carefully, it is also a staunch supporter of the tech industry through agencies such as the EDB, JTC Corporation and IMDA. This is showing some success: Google actually broke ground for a Hong Kong data center, but later withdrew, citing cost and the difficulty of acquiring “spacious land”. In contrast, the company is scheduled to complete a second, larger data center adjacent to its first in Singapore later this year.

Maintaining an edge

The initiative makes sense when viewed not as a reaction to soaring land costs, but as an attempt to maintain Singapore’s edge in the long term. Jabez Tan, a research director specializing in data centers at Structure Research says there is still “plenty of space” for new data centers at the (recently renamed) Tanjong Kling in Jurong West.

“The [announcement] is not necessarily a reactive sign that there’s an immediate shortage of land for data center builds, but more of a proactive step in working towards a longer-term plan to maximize the limited land in Singapore to accommodate enough data center capacity to support Singapore’s long-term growth,” he said to DCD.

If anything, competition from the region is increasing, according to Tan who brought up the possibility of large public cloud players locating their compute infrastructure to adjacent markets “with more readily available land” such as neighboring Malaysia.

Glen Duncan, a senior research manager of infrastructure in the APeJ region raised this same point. Citing the new VADS Iskander Puteri Core Data Centre in Johor Bahru, he said: “Other competing physically close options to Singapore are beginning to emerge as well. These may offer practical and more cost-effective alternatives… [and] prove attractive to some enterprises for certain workloads.”

“Singapore’s limited space and the continued expansion of the third-party data center market in the region means that it is prudent to begin to consider energy and space saving innovations,” said Duncan.

But is it more efficient?

But does a larger floor space equate to the ability to lower PUE? Several analysts and data center experts that DCD communicated with agreed that there is no evidence that a high-rise data center will automatically result in a lower PUE, though they also felt it is an idea worth exploring.

Building a low PUE data center is a complex undertaking that requires significant engineering skill, according to Duncan, particularly in high humidity environments like Singapore. And this will only be exacerbated by the inherent challenges of a high-rise data center.

“Multi-story also creates its own challenges [as] the concentration of ICT equipment into a single space is very heavy and a standard floor often cannot carry the weight. Multi-story designs often require significant reinforcing of the floors,” he explained.

Ed Ansett, the co-founder and chairman of i3 Solutions Group says a high-rise data center can result in a better PUE: “It certainly can do. The high-rise data can achieve an exceptionally low PUE provided it adopts a different approach to cooling, [for example] technologies mentioned in the Roadmap.”

Ansett was referring to a 16-month “Green Data Center Technology Roadmap” research study that the Singapore government commissioned from i3. Published in July 2014, the deliverables included a report(pdf) and a roadmap.

Reinventing the data center

“Power and cooling costs dominate data center construction cost, typically [more than] 70 percent once the data center is fully fitted out. [The] adoption of technologies and techniques taken from the roadmap can substantially reduce the construction cost,” he wrote to DCD.

For the idea to work, it must be more than just a taller multi-story data center. Ansett puts it this way: “It is necessary to differentiate the high-rise data center initiative from conventional data centers, since its design will likely be predicated on using more effective and efficient technologies and techniques compared to conventional data centers.”

It a nutshell, a green high-rise data center, if it can be made to work, is unlikely to look like your typical data center today. Polled for radical ideas, Heng Wai Mun, the executive director at OneAsia suggested the possibility of heat recovery for data centers – a topic of personal interest for him.

“In temperate countries, waste heat from data centers is already being used in some places for district heating. Obviously in a tropical country the use case is much more limited. However, if there is a viable way to convert thermal energy into a usable form then this could be a game changer in the future,” he said.

singapore skyscraper tall building thinkstock photos sakdawut14 533235954 tall
– Thinkstock / SAKDAWUT14

Playing for keeps

While the IMDA proposes tests, a high-rise data center as defined by the announcement already exists in the form of the iAdvantage MEGA-i data center, a 30-story building with a total gross floor space of over 350,000 sq ft (32,500 sq m) in Chai Wan, Hong Kong. Elsewhere, Telehouse North Two in London is a multi-story building uniquely designed with six floors of adiabatic coolers.

MEGA-i appears to use standard cooling technologies, while Telehouse North Two is not much taller than a modern multi-story data center in Singapore. Combining the two will likely yield interesting results, especially if research findings from the tropical data center study could be amalgamated to boost energy efficiency.

It could be that nothing will come out of the feasibility study. Or, if it works, it could be applied in other countries. Google built its first multi-story data center in Singapore and then adapted its know-how to data centers elsewhere.

For now, the team will be starting with more mundane objectives. In response to a query from DCD, Chng Hak Kiat, the APAC COO of Keppel Data Centres said: “Part of the feasibility studies outlined in the MOI includes a fresh look at PUE improvements from a high-density, high-rise deployment and design scenario versus traditional low-rise data centers typically found in Singapore. This entails taking a close look at the operating environment and the configuration of critical infrastructure without compromising sustainable maintenance efforts.”