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A leg-up on raised floors?

Are raised floors going the way of the Dodo? It just might happen. Data center technologies are continuing to evolve, and the traditional benefits of raised floors are quickly being overshadowed by newer and more efficient cooling techniques.

Sure, raised floors have been around for a long time – an elevated platform creates an enclosed plenum, providing important space for electrical and IT infrastructure, along with mechanical support for resources like chilled water and CRAC ductwork that cools the systems sitting on the actual floor panels.

However, raised floors are far from perfect. The plenum space is filthy, and working within tight, confined spaces can be a serious challenge for the claustrophobic among us. Any structural problems like loose or poorly installed tiles can collapse and damage equipment and cause injury to personnel. But those nuisances pale when compared to cooling limitations.

“As IT execs cram denser, more power servers into a 42U space, it becomes increasingly difficult to cool systems with under-floor forced air, even with hot-aisle/cold-aisle design best practices,” said Matt Stansberry, director of content and publications at Uptime Institute. Stansberry explains that CRAC vendors have turned to more energy-efficient cooling such as in-row and in-rack techniques. Moving the cooling closer to the heat source is more effective than trying to cool the entire room and everything in it. Ultimately, the value of raised flooring is increasingly in question.

Seriously, Stansberry certainly isn’t alone. According to TechTarget’s 2010 Data Center Decisions survey, 59% of IT respondents use raised flooring in their current data center, but only 43% expect to use raised floors in a future data center. Slabbed floors are also falling into disuse, with 33% of respondents using slabbed floors in the current data center, but only 19% planning slabbed floors for a future data center. In fact 38% of IT professionals don’t know what kind of flooring they will use in the future.

“The best way for an owner/operator to make a decision is to bring the IT department into the design process to explain hardware deployment plans and roadmaps,” Stansberry said, but what is your opinion of raised floors and data center architectures overall? How do you select the flooring approach that works best for you? What are the tradeoffs and limitations that matter for you? S-

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I think your feeling that raised floor/CRAC unit designs have cooling limitations and cannot efficiently handle high density heat loads is unfounded. You may run out of cooling capacity if you are only using perforated tiles but with the range of airflow panels available you should easily be able to handle up to 20kW per rack under typical static pressures. New grates even angle airflow at the rack to reduce by-pass air and further improve capacity and efficiency. I completely agree with you (or Matt) that localized cooling near the heat source is a good solution. Especially one that can monitor the utilization and heat loads in the rack and adjust cooling accordingly. However, again this solution already exists for raised floor/CRAC unit design. CRAC vendors may offer other cooling solutions, just as an in-row cooling companies may offer raised floors. I'm not sure there is a connection between product offering and the solution. I think the manufacturers may just want to be able provide a solution to meet the specific needs of any end user.
I don't think raised floors will ever just go away. There is a role from them to play and if the design community would get smarter about how they design, much of your problems will actually go away. I hear the same compliants over and over. If you want more space under your raised floor, design it with a higher floor height. If you want your plenum to stay clean, try doing some scheduled maintenance. You are essentially comparing 30 year old designs to current designs and blaming the raised floor. You can actually create a plenum wall under your floor to decrease the footprint of your cooling space and increase the air pressure and the cooling that is being emitted from your air flow panels. You can buy a variety of air-flow panels that alow you to modulate the air pressure and direct the air pressure depending on the design intent. The big reason why raised floor has stayed around is that it gives the end user the ability to reconfigure their own space cheaply and effectively. It's amazing that the ever changing technology community is going to be so fast to move to a system that is difficult and expensive to move once it's in place.