Are ordinary servers to cool to take a bath?

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Also posted on: IT Infrastructure

Water or liquid cooling for computer equipment is hardly new. High-end IBM mainframes in the seventies and eighties were routinely indirectly cooled via tanks of inert water at up to $250,000 a time (Nice work if you can get it!). More recently high-end gaming PCs have been water cooled and in the world of High Performance Computing variations of indirect and direct liquid cooling have been deployed for some time.

The latest developments have taken liquid cooling a stage further. Using a dielectric fluid, i.e. that isn’t a conductor of electricity, the mother board and its components are directly immersed. This may sound like a data centre manager’s nightmare, but the technology is proven and the potential benefits are impressive.

Using fluids developed by 3M, which are thinner than traditional mineral oils, companies such as Allied Control in Hong Kong and Iceotope in the UK have been testing and developing, and latterly implementing systems for a few years.

I recently visited the School of Mechanical Engineering at Leeds and toured their labs where an Iceotope system was in use. The first thing you notice is the silence. A full  rack of servers would normally give off quite a noise from the whirring fans in each blade. But there are no fans. The only thing that alerts you to the fact that this isn’t your normal rack enclosure, apart from the fact that it is on wheels, are the pipes connecting the enclosure to two radiators. The heat captured from the servers is used to heat water for the radiators.

For the technically minded amongst you the Iceotope and Allied Control websites explain in some detail how their total liquid cooling systems work. While Allied Control are more consultants and designers working on customer specific installations using non-sealed systems ,Iceotope provide fully configured  sealed blade servers, based on Intel Xeon processors, in a rack.

At the moment the focus appears to be all on the HPC environment. This can’t be an easy place for start-ups like Iceotope to play given that there are a number of existing liquid cooled solutions playing in a relatively small niche. The question is, why isn’t this liquid cooling technology being adopted in the mainstream server market?

If you have already made significant investment in traditional computer room air conditioning and have halls full of server racks  then you are not going to be gaining much of the benefit these liquid cooled systems deliver, and the actual server costs are probably a little higher than your standard Dell or HP blade. But given that these liquid cooled systems need no air conditioning, don’t need raised floors, are completely silent and, being sealed, are impervious to dust and other dirt particles , yet enable you to deliver extremely high density computing in a very small footprint suggest that there should be some interesting use cases.

The Iceotope system is actually a micro data centre in a box. Much is being made of the potential need for more “edge” data centres to cope with the forecasted demand from the Internet of Things. The ability to wheel these enclosures into existing city centre buildings might be a real boon to edge data centre operators. Similarly it should allow smaller hosting and service providers provide high density computing without the expense of significant data centre upgrades.

To make the jump to mainstream then there needs to be investment and focus from the existing server vendors or the ODM/OEM market to come up with volume designs for systems that don’t need fans or heat sinks. In order to get there innovative companies like Iceotope need to identify the use cases and early adopters and cross the chasm before someone else beats them to it.

This post first appeared on the old Cassini Reviews website.