New server cooling system built in Silicon Valley garage

Start-up uses HP, Apple approach to build liquid cooling system using cold plate technology

Silicon Valley's garages have a long history as incubators of technology.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard launched Hewlett-Packard Co. in a garage in Palo Alto, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked on the first Apple computer in a garage in Los Altos. It might be a little early to add Phil Hughes to that list of tech titans, but his firm has had similar beginnings. Hughes built a new energy-efficient system for cooling servers in what may be the 21st Century version of the family garage -- TechShop Inc.

Hardware start-ups are generally an expensive proposition, and founders often must seek venture capital funding to design and develop prototypes and products. But Hughes, a system engineer who also has many years of semiconductor marketing and engineering experience, and co-developer Bob Lipp, a semiconductor designer, eschewed the venture capital route when they decided to build a fanless, liquid cooling system for server and storage systems.

The new system is designed to replace the heat sinks and fans in servers with a "heat riser" -- such as a block of aluminum -- that draws heat to a thermal layer placed on both sides of the server lid. From there, the heat is moved to a cold plate with fluid circulating through it.

Removing fans from a server can reduce energy needs by 10% to 40%, depending on the ambient temperature

Hughes said that the energy saved should be at the high end of those estimates when the technology is scaled. For example, Hughes estimated that a 5,000-server deployment could cut costs by up to 44% because of power savings, reduced cooling plant costs and other scaled-back expenses.

Hughes said he has not decided on a next step for the new technology and his company, Clustered Systems Co. But early models of the technology proved strong enough to win a state energy grant, and Hughes this week delivered a 36-server rack to a Sun Microsystems Inc. facility for testing under the Chill Off program run by Data Center Pulse, a nonprofit group of data center professionals.

(Watch a video of some Hughes' early work on the new technology.)

Hughes and Lipp began the project in a home office and garage more than two years ago. They paid the development costs out of their own pockets -- Hughes said the project was likely too small to interest venture capital firms. Moreover, the path to securing venture capital is often "a big distraction," he added. "And, of course, you lose control."

The developers were forced to leave their own garage to get access to the tools they needed to build the system. They found help about a mile from Hughes' home at TechShop, a Menlo Park, Calif., company founded in 2006 to provide product developers with equipment ranging from hand tools to CNC milling machines and 3-D printers. TechShop also offers classes on how to use the equipment. The company operates in a way that's similar to gyms and health clubs, providing members who pay $100 a month with access to equipment.

"We were in the process of discovery, because neither one of us were officially mechanical engineers, we were both electrical engineers," said Hughes. Nonetheless he said that both of them believed they had enough experience to take the project on.

Hughes said that turning to TechShop is "an excellent way of getting a company going."

For instance, Hughes had no experience using a milling machine, and he "started cussing almost immediately" when he first started working with one, he recalled with a laugh. "There are all sorts of things you can do wrong," he explained.

TechShop staff taught Hughes and Lipp to run the machine. And, Hughes noted, they turned to a professional manufacturing firm to put together the racks

TechShop CEO Mark Hatch said that his business attracts serious entrepreneurs like Hughes as well as hobbyists. It's possible to open a business like TechShop because the prices of sophisticated machine equipment are falling. At about $17,000 today, milling machines "are now the cheapest [point] in history," said Hatch. A decade ago, the machines cost about $250,000.

"You can now innovate on disposable income," said Hatch.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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