As Infrastructure Gets Denser, Liquid-Cooling Looks Better and Better

Arthur Cole
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Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2016

Liquid cooling of critical data center components is starting to make its way into production environments, and just in time too, considering the increased density of modern infrastructure and its need for a more efficient means of heat dissipation.

3M Corporation recently announced the largest deployment of a “two-phase immersion cooling” system utilizing its Novec 7100 engineered fluid. Bitcoin processing firm BitFury deployed the system, developed by its subsidiary Allied Control, at its 40-plus MW facility in the Republic of Georgia. Like many hyperscale operations, BitFury employs its own ASICs, servers and other components and now aims to become a leader in energy-efficient infrastructure as well. The two-phase process utilizes the Novec fluid’s low boiling point to convert waste heat into vapor, which then cools on a condenser rack to recirculate back to electrical components without the use of pumps, reducing energy consumption about 95 percent.

Meanwhile, CoolIT Systems just won a significant contract for its Direct Contact Liquid Cooling (DCLC) system from the Poznan Supercomputing and Networking Center in Poland. The installation involves 20 racks of Huawei E9000 blade servers fed by a pair of rack-based DCLC CHx650 heat exchangers that deliver coolant directly to processor, RAM and VRM components. The system supports hot-swappable nodes across the entire 1160-node cluster and either redirects waste heat into office areas or relies on free-cooling when conditions are right.

Liquid solutions are not limited to the server farm, however. Mellanox and Iceotope have teamed up to introduce a liquid mechanism for InfiniBand and Ethernet networks and interconnects, which tend to get rather hot in high-performance computing environments. The pair has developed a series of fanless switches for the Iceotope Petagen cabinet that actually use fairly warm water (up to 113 degrees F) to enable reliable networking for power loads up to 60 kW per cabinet. At the moment, the system is optimized for Mellanox’ 36-port, 56 Gbps FDR InfiniBand devices and the 40/56 Gbps Ethernet switch, although the companies are looking to expand the line to 100 Gbps EDR InfiniBand in short order.

Despite superior cooling capabilities compared to traditional forced-air, liquids can still be tricky to work with, even when low-conductivity dielectrics are used. A key area of development these days is in bubble management, as in where, when and how bubbles are generated at the boiling point. According to Gizmodo’s Alissa Walker, researchers at MIT are looking to replace the haphazard way water nucleates (bubbles) so as to enable more efficient heat exchange. The team is working with various surfactants that can alter surface tension to produce a more even, efficient boil using less energy. Applications range from data infrastructure to large desalination and power generation plants.

Despite its relative newness, liquid-cooled infrastructure should be at the top of the agenda for enterprises contemplating either hyperscale or hyperconverged data facilities. With each new generation, individual heat-generating components have less space to call their own and fewer avenues to expel waste heat. Couple this with the higher utilization that modern data environments demand, and conditions are ripe for a serious meltdown, or at best a dialing back of the workload assigned to each node, which reduces the highly efficient data-to-energy ratio that modular infrastructure is supposed to provide.

And naturally, the best time to implement a water-cooled system is the initial deployment, even if the density and workloads can still be accommodated by air-cooling. When the key aspect of modular infrastructure is supposed to be scalability, the last thing you want to tell data users is that they’ll have to wait while you install an entirely new cooling mechanism.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata and Carpathia. Follow Art on Twitter @acole602.

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