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September 9, 2005 • Vol.27 Issue 36
Page(s) 29 in print issue

Throwing Water At The Heat Problem
Reducing Data Center Server Temperatures May Soon Require Liquid Cooling
IT admins know that reducing heat in the data center is a problem that only gets worse as servers become faster and more powerful and new equipment is added. However, what most don’t realize is that introducing liquid cooling systems, which represents a radical concept on the surface, may soon become a necessity.

Heat issues are nothing new for IT admins, of course. Increasingly powerful processors that power rack-mounted blade servers and other systems also emit more thermal energy and consequently higher temperatures. As a result, air cooling systems have increasingly been used. However, boosting fan or more advanced air cooling system cooling power will not be enough, especially after certain heat level thresholds are reached, some experts say. Viable server temperatures vary from system to system, but once they are surpassed, servers become unstable or in the worst case damaged or destroyed. Many experts say that liquid cooling systems represent the best alternative at this time.

“In many cases, it is way past time,” says Herb Villa, an IT product specialist for Rittal, a company that plans to offer new liquid cooling systems before the end of the year.

Not Only For Overclockers

Liquid cooling for servers is actually not new. IBM introduced servers over a decade ago that relied on liquid instead of air coolants to reduce heat dissipation, but the concept never saw widescale adoption. More recently PC enthusiasts have begun using water coolants, which can be 1,000 times more efficient than air to reduce CPU heat levels to viable norms when overclocking processors. The principle of liquid coolers works the same and conceptually does not differ much compared to air cooling. In an air cooling system, fans apply an air flow directly to the processor. The idea of liquid coolants, however, is to bring the more efficient cooling capabilities of liquids to as close to the processor as possible.

“Air is significantly less dense than water, and you have to get that cooled water as close to the [processor] as you can,” says Tom Condon, an analyst for System Development Integration.

The Risk Factor

The idea of introducing a liquid element into the data center does seem a bit dangerous. After all, water damage from a leaky or damaged pipe in an adjacent room can spell disaster if water comes into contact with your equipment. Why invite trouble by purposely implementing something that could damage or destroy your servers?

Some experts say that liquid cooling is not a necessity. “From my perspective, I don’t see it [as mandatory] since HVAC systems can keep temperatures down,” says Ross Armstrong, an analyst for the Info-Tech Research Group. (Disclaimer: Info-Tech analysts write a regular column for Processor.)

Indeed, unlike air, a ruptured tube that pipes water or another liquid mix into your server rack could spell a major disaster. “The risks of any liquid in the data center run the gamut from minor problems to, at its most extreme, the total destruction of the data center equipment. I realize that is a pretty extreme statement, but it is, in fact, true,” Condon says. “The two biggest enemies of the data center are fire and water. Data center managers try to avoid both because of the risks.”

Even small water leaks can cause problems. “I have seen data centers receive incredible damage from a relatively small amount of water. The fact that the liquid cooling options available today bring water much closer to equipment obviously increases the risk of liquid damage,” Condon says. “However, we cannot be too aqua-phobic. We must remember that liquid cooling systems are in extremely wide use in manufacturing facilities all over the world and are extremely reliable.”

The Challenges

Europe is ahead of the United States in terms of the adoption of liquid cooling systems for data centers, says Rittal’s Villa. However, several vendors, including HP, IBM, and Liebert, either have working systems or are developing offerings for release in the near term in the United States. In order for OEMs and suppliers in the United States to be able to offer workable systems on a widescale basis, vendors from different industries must collaborate, Condon says. “The biggest challenge for liquid cooling is something that I call industry integration. Just like it can be difficult to make two computer systems talk to each other, it can also be very difficult for two industries to work together,” Condon says. “Liquid cooling in the data center brings two industries closer than they have ever been before: HVAC and information technology.”

Thus, before IT admins can pick up the phone and order ready-to-deploy liquid coolers at reasonable price levels, vendors and service firms from the HVAC and IT sectors must first collaborate, Condon says. “First, designing a liquid cooling system will require an extremely close working relationship between experts in the two industries. If an IT company tries it alone or if an HVAC company tries it alone, I predict problems,” Condon says. “These are two extremely specialized industries, and they will have to let go of their traditional focus and broaden their horizons a little.”

Once installed, liquid cooling devices will unfortunately also require more administration work by IT admins, Condon says. “Liquid cooling systems require more attention than the simple, traditional air cooling units that we all know. The challenge will also be in maintaining those systems,” Condon says. “If they are not maintained, that dramatically increases the chance of leaks. Data center managers will have to be prepared for higher maintenance costs and a higher level of attention than the old units.”

by Bruce Gain


Vendor Hit List

Although IBM offered liquid-cooled servers over a decade ago, they have yet to catch on in the United States. Liquid-cooled servers are more popular in Europe though, and some vendors in the United States now either have liquid cooling systems available or in development for release in the near future. These vendors include HP (www.hp.com), IBM (www.ibm.com), Liebert (www.liebert.com), and Rittal (www.rittal-corp.com).


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