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We've come a long way in reducing data center costs and energy usage—but liquid immersion cooling might offer the means to save even more.
As part of green (and cost-saving) initiatives for data centers over the past 10 years, companies have sought to virtualize systems so they could eliminate physical servers and storage, reduce data center carbon footprints (and actual square footage), save energy, and make healthy contributions to their corporate sustainability goals by virtue of these data center facility and energy usage reductions.
In fact, so much progress has been made by so many that it now raises the question of whether we are all tapped out when it comes to further data center cost and energy reductions that are meaningful and impactful.
Enter liquid immersion cooling, which replaces the air cooling of computerized equipment in the data center by submerging hardware in a dielectric liquid that can transmit electric force without conduction.
"By using liquid immersion cooling, which completely submerges all electrical components in a dialectic liquid, it is possible to reduce the energy footprint of IT alone by between 10% and 45%, because it eliminates more expensive fan-generated energy by capturing all of the heat generated by the IT in the liquid," said Maikel Bouricius of Asperitas, a Dutch startup that sells plug-and-play liquid immersion cooling modules to data centers. "Suitable dielectric liquids can absorb approximately 1,500 times more heat energy than air with the same volumes and temperatures."
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To implement liquid immersion cooling, access to power and access to a continuous water loop for purpose of cooling are needed. In some cases, this means that other IT planning, such as disaster recovery, can become slightly more complicated, since the immersion cooling requires proximity to a plumbing source.
On the flip side, though, an immersion cooling approach in a data center eliminates the need for raised floors and the noise of fan cooling, which in many cases enables an enterprise to deploy various types of data centers anywhere. This can pay off big for enterprises considering moving more of their computing out to the edges of their companies instead of centralizing all computing in one monolithic data center.
"Also, the loading of a single immersed server can be sized to replace three or more air cooled servers," Bouricius said. "On the software side, this will reduce the number of operating systems and CPU licenses needed because the data center will run fewer physical servers."
Extrapolating this cost savings argument, Bouricius estimates that the use of immersion cooling in a 2MW size data center could result in 50% fewer servers, four times higher systems density, at least 10% reduction in CAPEX (capital expense), and at least 25% reduction of TCO (total cost of ownership). "For a cloud provider, immersed computing in many situations can save 50% of the total energy costs," Bouricius said. "Also, 98% of the energy can be easily reused in the form of high temperature water by surrounding buildings."
Data centers can be newly constructed or they can be renovated for immersion cooling, with the primary caveat being that the technology requires a liquid supporting infrastructure.
For companies with existing data centers and a mix of workloads that ranges from high performance computing to lower levels of computing, immersion cooling is still on the horizon. One reason is that data center managers understand that the introduction of immersion cooling could require substantial reconfiguration of their data centers, with equipment that is now racked vertically needing to be deployed horizontally so it can be placed into cooling modules. From a facility standpoint, these cooling modules need to be proximate to plumbing and water supplies.
However, high performance computing (HPC) data centers in enterprises and at cloud providers could see dramatic cost reductions right away with the introduction of immersion cooling. These gains could come in the form of profit margin increases or in the case of a highly competitive market, the ability for a provider to discount services.
"All data center operators benefit from investing in immersed computing because immersed computing not only positively impacts sustainability, but also many CAPEX and OPEX (operating expense) areas, dramatically reducing TCO," said Bouricius. "I expect that early adopters will be those operators aiming for flexibility, such as modular deployment or easy scaling, coupled with optimal energy efficiency performance. Those getting an early benefit could be cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS) providers—or anyone with high performance computing requirements."