IBM chills out with server cooling effort

'Cool Blue' aims to reduce the heat produced by its x86 server racks

IBM, which once used water to help cool its massive mainframes, is again turning to water to reduce the heat produced by its large x86 server racks.

The company today detailed its cooling project, "Cool Blue," and released its first related product: the IBM eServer Rear Door Heat eXchanger. This is a door that can be retrofitted on the company's standard 42U enterprise rack (1U is 1.75 inches) that houses its xSeries Intel-based processor line.

The chilled water supply that flows through eXchanger comes from a data center's existing air-conditioning systems. IBM claims that it will remove up to 50,000 BTUs, reduce server heat emissions by up to 55% and lower energy costs by 15%.

The water-cooled system is intended to address the problem of hot spots in a data center, said Tim Dougherty, director of IBM's e-Server blade center.

IBM believes the technology will be of interest to data center managers who have controlled heat through server configurations and improved airflows but still have areas in their data centers with high temperatures. "What this will do will effectively alleviate those hot spots," said Dougherty. The technology will likely be of most interest to data center customers who can't easily expand floor space, he said.

Cooling and power concerns consistently rank as top issues for data center managers, according to surveys by AFCOM, an Orange, Calif.-based association of data center managers.

One IT manager active in AFCOM, Kent Howell, manager of computer operations at Illinois Power Co., said water cooling is a technology "that may clearly have a value in the future, as servers get smaller and hotter and there is more and more of them filling up data centers."

Howell said water cooling could be a "viable solution" to overhauling a data center's air-handling capability. And while water cooling isn't in the immediate future for Illinois Power -- Howell's data center already has excess air-handling capacity -- "a year from now, it may be a whole different story," he said.

Howell added that the concept of introducing water into a data center raises no more issues than water-cooled mainframes. "We didn't have the concerns then, and I don't think there is a necessarily a concern this time," he said.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT in Haywood, Calif., said the heat generated by newer processors makes them difficult to work with effectively, and it increases data center cooling costs. "You are suddenly looking at power and heating and air-conditioning requirements that are going off the scale," he said.

King said the IBM technology will allow data centers to be better utilized and potentially "buy some time and get a few more generations out of their facilities before they think about having to rebuild or retrofit."

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said IBM will bring credence to the technology because of its prior experience. "Everything old is new again," said Haff.

While acknowledging that analogies are a dangerous thing, Haff couldn't resist making a comparison: "There is an awful lot of mainframe-type of things like virtualization, water cooling, technologies that were not considered relevant to the scale-out world, and now these same concepts are being applied to scale out Intel servers."

Pricing on eXchanger starts at $4,229. IBM says one customer that is installing the technology is German bank HypoVereinsbank. Asked if other sizes of eXchanger will be produced, IBM officials declined to discuss specifics. But they said other products in this line are planned.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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