Rick Cockrell splits from Core4; company relocates to San Francisco

NAPA – A refrigeration expert whose cool designs for hot-working computer data centers led to significant energy savings for Santa Rosa-based communications services provider Sonic.net now has his design employed in a major Silicon Valley data center project set to be complete this fall.

[caption id="attachment_23496" align="alignleft" width="101" caption="Rick Cockrell"][/caption]

Over the past dozen years, Rick Cockrell, 40, has developed a cooling system that dramatically reduces the energy needed to run refrigerant compressors and climate-related limitations such as hot, humid locales.

Late last year while he was chief technical officer of Core4 Systems, he landed a more than $20 million contract to provide 4,100 tons of cooling for a 100,000-square-foot new data center for publicly traded Equinix, which operates 87 data centers worldwide. The first phase of the $145 million new center, called SV5 and located next to the company's flagship SV1 center, is set for completion in October.

"I tried to get them to retrofit 42 co-location centers, but they wanted to build a new building," Mr. Cockrell said from his home in Napa. "I went after the biggest gorilla you could possibly go after."

Core4 started as a division of Napa-based mechanical systems contractor Bell Products between 2004 and 2009. The contractor provided a $600,000 loan for Mr. Cockrell to develop the system.

The first big installation was the $619,000 job in 2008 to upgrade Sonic.net's 5,400-square-foot data center with 60 additional tons of cooling while reducing cooling energy consumption by more than two-thirds from a conventional design.

Such upgrades allow center operators to increase computing and storage capacity because each rackspace in a server cabinet runs hotter and consumes more electricity as electronics get faster and smaller.

Cooling capacity has been an industry limitation on data center density, often represented in kilowatts per cabinet. Equinix's SV1 has an average density of 1.75 kilowatts per cabinet, while SV5 is designed for 4.

Cooling system energy savings, especially for the IT industry, come from a combination of refrigeration technologies. Compression of the refrigerant is a top power-hungry part of the system, so the Core4 system was designed to cool air inside the building rather than relying on outside air that needed to be filtered, a process called refrigerant-side economizing.

It also uses outdoor wet-bulb temperatures, so it can continue economizing even on hot, humid days. Large fans use one-third the electricity, and big coils limit how much energy must be used to take moisture out of the chilled air and put back in to prevent data-deadly static buildup.

The system is designed to accurately track energy usage and efficiency, which Sonic used to verify its savings to get utility rebates.

"Rick has designed a data center cooling system that is superior to what is currently available," commented Equinix senior mechanical engineer Suresh Pichai last November about why Mr. Cockrell's design was picked for SV5.

In early 2009, Bell spun off Core4 Systems as a separate company with Mr. Cockrell as chief technology officer and a team of information technology and clean tech industry funders and entrepreneurs, namely co-founders Chief Executive Officer Richard Donaldson and Jamien McCullum, vice president of business development.

However, by the end of last year a disagreement between Mr. Cockrell and management of Core4 led him to sell his 32 percent stake and leave the company. Yet, he has stuck with the SV5 project to see it completed.

"I can't walk off the job because my name is attached to it," he said.

Bell Products remains a stakeholder via its seed funding loan, yet Core4 now is operated out of San Francisco, according to Mr. McCullen. He said more information on Core4's direction would be available in October.

In February Mr. Cockrell started his own Napa company, Innovative Cooling Solutions. However, he soon found he needed help because of meager funds to scale quickly.

"When I started the first project with Equinix, I was not able to keep up with the demand," Mr. Cockrell said.

He is in negotiations with Jacksonville, Fla.-based Stellar, a mechanical systems design and construction company that competed for the SV5 project.

In early July, the company launched a refrigeration services division. It has 33 services and construction offices in areas with a dense concentration of data centers.

Mr. Cockrell is proposing to use an underlying design different from the SV5 system on other projects, such as cooling power plant turbine inlets.

He is proposing a 12 percent to 15 percent increase in energy efficiency for 75,000 tons of turbine inlet cooling on a Stellar project at a Midwest plant. In 2009, Stellar was ranked No. 9 worldwide in cogeneration plant construction.