In Texas heat, servers take dip to keep cool

Computing center says liquid cooling is a stop-gap; changes in chips, software may be needed to deal with power demand

It may take a leap to believe that computers can function in fluid, but at the Texas Advanced Computing Center in Austin that's exactly what's being done.

Picture a 42U server rack (each U is 1.75 inches) tilted on its side in a fluid filled tank -- something akin to a large freezer -- and you have a general idea of the scene.

The Texas computing center has been testing servers in a tank that are fully immersed in mineral oil, a non-conducting fluid. The technology for doing so was developed by a neighboring Austin firm, Green Revolution Cooling.

Mark Tlapak, co-founder of two year-old Austin-based Green Revolution, describes the fluid as baby oil without the fragrance, as well as non-toxic, safe and something that works well with electronics.

In this pilot, fans have been removed from the servers and the disk drives have been encapsulated to keep fluid from getting inside them. But otherwise these are standard industry systems, Dell machines in this case, that have been submerged in fluid.

"We get better operating efficiency -- it greatly reduces the amount of power," said Dan Stanzione, deputy director of the supercomputing center.

The mineral oil is at 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which keeps processors and the disk drives running at about 115 degrees, within range of their normal operating temperatures.

Air cooling takes a lot more energy. To get the air temperature down to 70 degrees Fahrenheit requires getting the chiller cooling fluid temperature at about 45 degrees. The chips are still running at about 115 degrees. "Air is not very effective mechanism for conducing heat away," said Stanzione.

The Texas computing center, which is based at the University of Texas, is now considering immersing a couple of dense racks that are running in production. It is assessing the long-term effects of mineral oil cooling on component reliability and disk drive performance.

The mineral oil may be acting as a shock absorber for the disk drives, said Stanzione, who said that it is believed most disk drives suffer some performance penalty due to vibration that forces them to re-read or rewrite data.

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