Alibaba's cloud business has built a data center cooled by lake water

AliCloud, the cloud computing division of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, has built a new data center that has the interesting distinction of being cooled by water from a nearby lake.

It’s just the latest in a string of advances and progressive designs for giant computing facilities over the past several years, as Internet titans attempt to conserve costs and energy.

Historically, data center operators used expensive artificial air conditioning systems and building plans designed to keep hot-running gear from overheating. However, as more and more of our lives moved online, the companies whose computers process those transactions — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo— have invested heavily in new ways to minimize energy use and power bills from operating hundreds of thousands to millions of servers.

AliCloud claims its new data center, which is located near Qiandao Lake, about 225 miles from Shanghai in China’s Zhejiang Province, will allow the cloud provider to cool its servers and other data center gear for free for 90% of the year, and cut the facility’s energy costs by 80%. Returning warmed water back into the lake could have adverse environmental effects, an outcome AliCloud is trying to avoid by recapturing the warm water to heat nearby buildings.

Google and commercial data center operator Interxion have already embraced similar strategies, with each having built data centers cooled by ocean water. Interxion also recaptures the water for heating, while Google re-cools used water before returning it to the sea.

Other data center practices once considered crazy but becoming common include specially designed hardware, hydropower, solar power, wind power, natural-air cooling, and even artificial intelligence models for identifying efficiency problems. Aside from the lake-water cooling, AliCloud says its latest data center also uses solar and hydraulic power, as well as custom gear to squeeze more performance per square foot.

It’s telling about the state of the global economy that companies such as Alibaba, as well as Chinese search engine giant Baidu and social network Tencent, have stepped up their efforts around data center efficiency recently. As more Chinese citizens get online, more Chinese entrepreneurs start new companies and more Chinese businesses modernize their computing infrastructure, the country’s Internet services are realizing they need to get on the cutting edge of data center efficiency — or risk seeing the power bill take a big bite out of the bottom line.