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Liquid cooling returns to the data center

By Darrell Dunn
April 12, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Liquid cooling is making its way back to the data center, mostly in the form of rack-level gear. Rapidly escalating power demands and rising utility rates are requiring users to take a more proactive approach to cooling.

The shift is already in motion. Servers preconfigured with liquid-based cooling modules sit on top of the hottest components in a system, slashing cooling demands in half. This in turn will lead to entire motherboards being "hosed down" directly with treated water or refrigerants, eliminating or dramatically reducing the need for the less efficient air conditioning units that populate most data centers today. (See related story.)

For US Internet, a provider of collocation data center services, the use of rack-level cooling systems from Liebert Corp. has become critical. The "creeping" nature of increasingly dense and hot server equipment inside its Minneapolis data center almost destroyed the future of the fast-growing company, said Travis Carter, co-founder and chief technology officer of US Internet. As its customers began to move increasingly higher-density gear into the data center, temperatures began to slowly rise, reaching 100 degrees, and equipment failure began to escalate.

"We didn't even know we had a problem at first," Carter said. "Quite frankly, it snuck up on us over a period of months [in 2005], and we found ourselves with no available space for traditional cooling. It became embarrassing. You can't bring a potential customer into a sauna and expect them to add their gear to the problem."

US Internet redesigned its data center to incorporate Liebert XD cooling systems that pump refrigerant into cabinet racks, and it deployed new air conditioning units and environmental monitoring systems. The data center is now maintained at 70 degrees, and the customer base is back on the growth curve. The company plans to add a data center later this year that will also incorporate the new cooling equipment.

"As far as I'm concerned, everything we invested in the cooling equipment has been revenue generation right to the bottom line," Carter said. "We would either be out of business today or operating at a much smaller base without that equipment."

Data center energy efficiency is top of mind. Industry roundtables with the U.S. Department of Energy are being held across the country as a potential crisis in the data center has mushroomed over the past few years. Enterprises across the country are struggling to meet demands in data centers that were designed for a different era of computing.

A study published by Gartner Inc. in November projects that by next year, half of all current data centers will have insufficient power and cooling capacity to meet the demands of high-density computing equipment.

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