Leeds University Tests Iceotope’s Liquid-Cooled Servers

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Leeds University is testing a cooling system that could have wider uses

Iceotope has announced its first customer, having installed a next generation liquid-cooled server at the University of Leeds, which uses a combination of liquid coolant and hot water to cool the server – and provide hot water for the University’s heating system.

The British firm has been working on its system for some years and plans to take part in a major shift as it believes data centres will have to move to liquid cooling to reduce their energy consumption in the near future. .


University Tests

TechweekEurope first reported on Iceotope back in November 2009. Its system essentially cools hot-running servers by immersing them in liquid coolant solution (3M’s Novec), sealed into a specially-made blade. Heat is removed from that unit by running hot water past it in a circulating system within the system rack.

Iceotope claims to be able to reduce the energy consumption costs for server cooling by between 80 percent and 97 percent. the hot water the system produces is also useful for other purposes including central heating.

After two years of testing prototypes, Iceotope has installed the first liquid-cooled production system at the University of Leeds, where it is being tested.

Story continues after the gallery…

Iceotope cooling system at the University of Leeds

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Iceotope installation connected to radiators
Hot water from the Iceotope server cooling system is used to provide heating from the University of Leeds' radiators

The company designed and built the new server, working in partnership with a team of researchers led by Dr Jon Summers from the University of Leeds’ School of Mechanical Engineering.

Iceotope says that because all the electronics are encapsulated in a sealed unit containing 3M’s dielectric coolant Novec as the inert coolant, it reduces the power consumed at a server level by eliminating the need for any fans. While the idea of immersing electronics in any liquid seems strange, Novec can be in direct contact with electronics because it does not conduct electricity.

Novec rapidly convects the heat away from the electronics, and then transfers it to a sealed low pressure gravity fed subsystem. The heat can then be passively cooled or repurposed to centrally heat or provide hot water to other buildings, facilities or office spaces.

Liquid cooling is gaining traction in the industry. Last September for example, Intel gave its blessing to the concept, after it approved the idea of a rival system from Green Revolution Cooling (GRC), after a one year trial.

Google also uses liquid cooling in its data centres, and Sun founder Scott McNeally has backed another immersion advocate LiquidCool (formerly Hardcore Computing).

Efficient Cooling

“The liquid we are using is extraordinary stuff,” said Dr Summers of Leeds University. “You could throw your mobile phone in a tub of it and the phone would work perfectly. But the important thing for the future of computing and the internet is that it is more than 1,000 times more effective at carrying heat than air.”

“The cooling of servers is traditionally done using fans and air conditioning units, but air is a great insulator. We use it in double glazing. Why would you use it to cool a server?” said Dr Summers.

Iceotope says that the new system needs no noisy fans, nor does the new server need an elaborate pump to move the coolant over its components. Instead, a simple low energy pump is located at the bottom of the cabinet, and it pumps a secondary coolant (water) to the top where it cascades down throughout all 48 modules due to gravity.

“The secondary coolant terminates at heat exchangers within the cabinet for transfer of heat to a third and final coolant, on an external loop, taking the heat away for external cooling or reuse,” said the company. This thid coolant can be drawn from “grey water” sources such as rainwater or river water.

Iceotope says that due to the high cooling efficiency of its system, the output water can reach temperatures of up to 50°C, which can be used for heating and other uses. The Iceotope system uses just 80 watts of power to harvest the heat from up to 20 kilowatts of ICT use. It also says that the new server also does away with the need for ancillary data centre facilities such as computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units, humidity control systems and air purification.

The Future?

In 2009, IBM predicted that all servers would be water cooled by 2019, as liquids remove heat more efficiently, and in a form that can be used for other purposes. IBM’s supercomputers, such as that at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich,  provide  warmth for nearby buildings.

“The fact that this system is completely enclosed raises a host of possibilities,” explained Dr Nikil Kapur, also from the University of Leeds’ School of Mechanical Engineering. “It does not interact with its environment in the way an air-cooled server does, so you could put it in an extreme environment like the desert. It is also completely silent. You could have it on a submarine or in a classroom.”

“Information technology has been the poster child of the new economy but its environmental impact has frequently been unaddressed,” said Neil Bennett, CEO of Iceotope. “Given the increasing scarcity of resources such as energy and clean water, Iceotope delivers computing with a conscience. We are proud to have the University of Leeds as partners on this disruptive and exciting journey.”

“More than five years of research, innovation and collaboration have gone into Iceotope’s technology,” said Peter Hopton, Iceotope’s CTO and originator of the Iceotope concept. “The basic principle of the design has many applications and, while a few years away, there is no reason why every home shouldn’t make better use of the surplus heat from consumer electronics, imagine having your PC or TV plumbed into the central heating system.”

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