I have an idea for a datacenter architecture which, I believe, would be very effective in terms of passive cooling.

I need to do air flow simulations to be sure that the idea is as great as I believe, before suggesting it to companies who design datacenters.

I've read about several air flow simulations, but it seems that those software products require years of training, and moreover are adapted specifically to the specific industries which have nothing to do with datacenters (like aircraft design).

What software can be used/adapted for this scenario? What is used to simulate air flow in datacenters? Or is it more a trial and error, with no prior computer simulation?

closed as off topic by Iain, EEAA, Ward, Falcon Momot, mdpc Jun 22 '13 at 4:53

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  • This isn't really a sysadmin task it more of an engineering task. – Iain Jun 21 '13 at 22:07
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    @Iain True, but datacenter design has been historically on-topic here (by virtue of having nowhere better to live) – voretaq7 Jun 21 '13 at 22:13
  • @voretaq7: Just because there is nowhere else doesn't make here the right place. Why would a sysadmin design a datacenter - it's really not our bailiwick and Off Topic is erm off topic close it and move on. – Iain Jun 21 '13 at 22:16
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    I don't really agree that this is off topic (a sysadmin should understand the whole system - and datacenters are an important part of that system), but you know my standard answer to questions of topicality: I'm always up for a good Meta debate :-) – voretaq7 Jun 21 '13 at 22:23
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    @Iain I do though, and I'm ACE! I think every sysadmin would like the opportunity to design a datacenter, even if it's not a frequent task. Certainly they should have strong opinons on design and the ability to do some form of "what if?" analysis. – Chopper3 Jun 21 '13 at 22:37

If you Google for "computational fluid dynamics air flow data center" you'll find a number of products that will suit your needs. There will be a variety of prices and feature sets, you'll need to look at them individually to find those that meet your exact needs though. I design very large data centres myself and I'm actually bound under NDA from discussing which one we use as it's been highly customised for us and some of those customisations will eventually be part of the mainline of code for other customers but either way these are really great pieces of software that will help more than you'd imagine.


Datacenter design used to be a lot of trial and error, and "flood cooling" (throw ever more tonnage of air conditioning at the heat load until stuff stops overheating).

This is inefficient, hideously expensive, and frankly nobody worth their salt does it this way anymore: Either a "standard" datacenter design is used (known volume and layout, estimated heat load, and balanced cooling) or a room is actually designed and engineered for efficient cooling.

Engineering airflow in a room isn't an easy task (as Iain mentioned, it's really the job of an engineer - preferably one who has built datacenters before and knows what they're doing].
There's a lot to consider:

  • Intended Airflow
  • Containment (keeping Hot and Cold zones separate)
  • Raw cooling required ("heat load")
  • Distribution of the heat load (which is often overlooked)
  • Failure modes (and how to handle them gracefully)

(and that's just the heat/airflow -- there are human factors that need to be considered too)

As Chopper3 noted, the tools used for this are CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) packages -- many of them are the same things people use for designing aircraft, as you noted (and yes, the really good ones often take some substantial training to use well).
There are also some that specifically cater to datacenter design - I've personally used one called CoolSim which I found to be "adequate" (most of my other CFD experience is from engineering classes, modeling wings and such, and I've not used any other datacenter-specific tools, so take that for what it's worth, which is "not much").

You should also never underestimate the value of walking through a room with a smoke stick (especially once it's live) to see what having machines in the room really did to the airflow.
(Please remember to cut out your room's smoke sensors first, and ensure that no sensors are tripped before you turn them back on.)

In addition to modeling software there's also monitoring techniques you should be investing in. Pretty much every modern server has a small army of temperature sensors inside, and good PDU/CDUs have the ability to support probes that report temperature and humidity as well.

This can data can be grabbed via SNMP and fed into monitoring software (or custom-written stuff) in order to generate a real-time plot of your datacenter's temperature, and allow you to pinpoint "hot spots" before they actually become problems.
Depending on how much time (or cash) you're willing to spend this can be anything from a simple Page someone if the temperature is above X degrees alerting system to a Here's a thermal map of the datacenter for the last 5 days, sampled every 30 seconds and time compressed. You see where the temperature dropped on Tuesday? That's the old SAN we decommissioned being powered off.

  • Answering off topic questions implicitly encourages them :( – Iain Jun 21 '13 at 22:17
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    I think it is on topic, but that's me – Chopper3 Jun 21 '13 at 22:23

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