Are Liquid-Cooled Servers Coming to a Data Center Near You?

In recent weeks, a server cooling concept that greatly reduces data center power consumption has been causing a bit of a stir. During the Supercomputing 2009 conference, two startups, Iceotope and Green Revolution Cooling, promised to drastically reduce the energy it takes to keep computing hardware cool by doing something a little unconventional. Their solution: dunking server hardware in liquid.

Not just any liquid, of course, but inert fluids that won’t short out the electronics. Like I discussed a couple of weeks ago in this post at Earth2Tech, the concept works because liquids are much better at transferring heat than air. Now the preferred cooling technology of some computer hobbyists is poised to invade data centers. But will it catch on?

The one thing these liquid-cooled systems have going for them is huge savings, plain and simple. Iceotope claims that its technology can cut data center cooling costs by a whopping 93 percent. Green Revolution Cooling, for its part, says its system can cut total data center power consumption nearly in half (45 percent). What’s not to like?

The prospect of saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in energy costs is certainly an alluring one, but it’s not enough to win over data center operators. Here are a few stumbling blocks that liquid-cooling outfits and others hoping to bank on exotic cooling technologies have to clear before they find success in the marketplace.

Warranty, Service and Repair: For better or worse, server manufacturers design their systems to operate in air-cooled server rooms. Until OEMs and vendors give the official go-ahead — remember some have their own cooling systems to sell — expect demand to be muted. Without IBM’s or HP’s blessing, for example, IT departments will be reluctant to subject their hardware to potentially warranty-voiding modifications. In this video, Green Revolution Cooling’s Co-President, Christiaan Best, describes some of the changes servers have to undergo like removing fans and sealing hard drives. Not that deploying servers is ever plug-and-play simple, but this adds a whole new level of customization to an already complex undertaking. Even Green Revolution Cooling’s own warranty (which covers modified servers for three years and may surpass native coverage in some cases) may not be enough to sway CIOs and IT managers.

Making Room: Iceotope’s system is meant to emulate the traditional server rack. Problem solved. Green Revolution Cooling’s system (PDF), on the other hand, is a rack on its back.  Meant to have 1U servers slot into it vertically, the company’s enclosure sits low on the floor instead towering over IT personnel. As you might guess, most data centers weren’t planned and built with this layout in mind.

Culture Change: And let’s not forget the inherent messiness of dealing with liquids of any kind. IT folk, by and large, like to keep their hands dry. Retrofitting data centers for liquid-cooling has some heavy switching costs that will prove challenging for startups offering such systems.

Are any of these challenges deal-breakers? The warranty issue alone is enough to scare many IT shops off. It will take a lot of convincing by Iceotope and Green Revolution Cooling, something that is usually remedied with official partnerships and vendor certifications (remember, they are also competitors of a sort). If they can pull it off, they’ll find that some data center operators don’t mind getting their hands wet in exchange for some big energy savings.

Question of the week

Is your IT department willing to get its hands wet for some major energy savings?