Plunging the data centre into the future

Going to be in hot water if your data centre’s energy consumption doesn’t come down?

A Quebec company think it’s found a way to drown a CIO’s worries by literally immersing servers in a dialectic fluid that draws away heat.

Systemex Energies says it’s finalizing a solution, which it has been working on for the past two years, with a non-electrical conducting fluid from 3M called Novec more commonly used for fire suppression, cleaning electronics and coating hard disks. But it’s also used by a number of industries for heat transfer.

“Our goal is to come up with a new generation of racks in which we mainly use the 3M liquid for immersion cooling,” Marc Antoine Pelletier, Systemex’s director of strategy and business development, said in an interview.

Its solution also involves proprietary algorithms installed on the servers to increase power efficiency.

Working with IBM, the company created a testbed using Power 5 blades to trial the concept. Systemex is confident enough after two years of trials to talk to equipment makers. Systemex might even make its own server system, Pelletier said.

“Our product will be ready by the mid- or third quarter of 2015,” he said, “although we’re willing to take orders for early adopters.”

A solution will cost more than an air-cooled data centre, he admitted, but the power saving “is where we can play with the big guys.”

Pricing was not announced.

Server immersion technology isn’t new – some are using a special oil. The 1985 Cray-2 supercomputer used a fluid from 3M called Fluroinert. But 3M believes Novec can be used commercially to cool specially-designed modern severs.

Heat generated from the server components warms the fluid to its boiling point, producing a vapor that condenses on a cool coil and falls back into the bath. The water in the coil doesn’t need to be chilled.

Immersion cooling not only saves up to 95 per cent of the energy used in traditional data centres to keep hardware cool, 3M says, it allows tighter packing of components – in fact, given the price of the system, the more blades the better. 3M says a design can hold up to 100 kWatts of computing power per square meter, compared to 10kW of a typical air-cooled system.

So not only would it save energy, it would also save space.

If the idea of plunging prized hardware into liquid makes you squeamish, it’s understandable. But 3M and Systemex say with a little modification (like ditching the moving fans) standard blades can handle it. In practice, however, if commercially feasible customizing will be needed.

In fact, 3M says, Hong Kong’s Allied Control is aiming its two-phase immersion cooling system to build high performance systems for people mining for Bitcoins.

(For those who don’t know, you can “mine” for Bitcoins by solving complex equations. But as the number of equations are solved, the computing power to work on the next level increases. As a result, miners are increasingly looking – and willing to pay — for more horsepower. )

Systemex is just one of a number of IT companies exploring the possibilities. SGI Inc., for example, has worked with Intel and 3M to produce a demonstration supercomputer. Called ICE X, it uses Intel E5-2600 processors.

In an email Bill Mannel, SGI’s general manager for compute and storage said that his company is installing another proof-of-concept server at an unnamed company.

“In the short-term we see a viable solution where the customer needs for non-traditional cooling are paramount (for example in a confined space). As we test further and understand the bill of materials for the project, we’ll be able to make an assessment of the cost/benefits of this cooling method vs. other ‘bath’ methods–as well as traditional methods.

“At face value, it will drive more materials costs at the saving of power costs needed to cool the equipment. One drawback is that today data centers are designed assuming that the compute equipment rises in the vertical direction. In most ‘bath’ methods, the rack lies down in the bath, challenging density in traditional data centers. Long term adoption of the technology may require re-thinking the design of data centers—or rethinking of the bath orientation.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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