Liquid Cooling: Ready for the Mainstream?

Arthur Cole

Data centers across the globe have made great strides in lowering their power consumption.

Virtualization alone has reduced the hardware footprint at many operations, and just in time considering the highly volatile price of electricity lately and the attention that is given to the energy costs of massive data facilities.

When it comes to the green data center, however, momentum is everything. And despite the broad recognition of the effort that has already been made, much of the world is already turning toward the IT industry and asking: What’s next?

One solution gaining traction of late is liquid cooling in the server farm. The practice is widely recognized as a much more efficient and cost-effective means of heat exchange than traditional air-cooling approaches, although it is more expensive to implement and has only recently advanced to the point that it can even be considered in production data environments.

But it seems like liquid cooling is about to make a major breakthrough if reports of unnamed webscale companies on the verge of announcing major deployments are true. According to Green Revolution Cooling, these anonymous operators are working with specialized server racks that allow machines to be bathed in mineral oil that would keep the temperature under control without expensive fans, tailored aisle configurations or large air-conditioning units. And with large operators increasingly turning to specialty design shops rather than commodity platforms for their IT hardware needs, retrofitting entire data centers could happen fairly quickly.

Without question, the savings from liquid-cooled infrastructure are substantial. According to British firm Iceotope, cooling costs can be cut by 90 percent compared to traditional air-fed systems. And since cooling represents almost half the operating cost of large data organizations like Facebook and Google, full conversion could shave billions off of annual operating budgets. At a time when many people are wondering if the need to view funny cat videos on their smartphones is a justifiable use of energy, a dramatic reduction like that would be a welcome development indeed.

Probably the most high-profile deployment of liquid-cooling technology to date is the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., which recently installed a direct-to-chip system designed by Asetek. The design actually uses warm water (about 75 degrees F) but has the advantage of working with existing servers in the facility’s Skynet HPC cluster (no, not the one from "Terminator"). NREL is expecting a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.06, which is just a hair’s breadth away from perfect efficiency, and will gain the added advantage of repurposing excess heat for office and laboratory use.

Liquid cooled solutions are also poised to make a run in traditional data center sales channels. Fujitsu’s new Sparc M10 line includes a hybrid air/water system called Liquid Loop Cooling that utilizes a board-level heat sync and plumbing system to run cooled liquid right to the processor. Not only does this improve cooling efficiency, but it allows the company to boost data performance by placing memory and other components closer to the processor.

Running liquids so close to sensitive electronics may be unnerving at first, but it’s important to note that this is not plain water but specially designed dielectrics that have been thoroughly tested to ensure safe operations. Remember, there was a time when purposely injecting yourself with smallpox was considered crazy as well.


Liquid cooling just may be the driver that kicks off an entirely new round of substantial energy reduction at the data center, not only saving the data industry a boatload of money but taking a large target off our backs as one of the world’s most energy-intensive industries.



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