Liquid Cooling: Helping IT become cool again

Posted on 28 Feb 2018 by Jonny Williamson

Today’s always-on, connected businesses rely on powerful computing, but that power comes at a cost – in terms of energy, space and money. Jonny Williamson discovers how liquid cooling technology being pioneered in the UK is helping solve global challenges.

Dusty dirty processor PC fan - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Having to periodically clean air-driven cooling fans can be a drain on resources which could be better utilised on more value-added tasks – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The successful leveraging of data has fast become business-critical to almost every organisation, helping to achieve greater optimisation, a more personalised service and heightened agility towards market opportunities.

By 2040, there will be an estimated 40 billion connected devices in use worldwide. That will put a significant strain on the world’s infrastructure, and will require a step-change in the amount of power we generate.

It’s worth nothing that data has always played an important role for manufacturers, with large volumes being generated by systems and networks which have been around – in many cases –for decades.

What has changed, however, is how quickly that data can be gathered, collated, presented and acted upon. In short, data and the insights it provides strongly determines future innovation and competitive advantage.

Yet, as ethereal as big data seems, it is ultimately ‘crunched’ by physical machines and, like any machines, computers require routine maintenance or run the risk of overheating and potentially failing.

Keeping cool

Cooling IT systems with fan-driven air may be the conventional method, but liquid cooling has been around in some shape or form for years. Indeed, one of the world’s first supercomputers was liquid cooled, the Cray-2 built in the early 1980s.

Yet, technical issues such as the corrosion of parts caused by leaks in the system for example, resulted in liquid cooling being shelfed for the best part of two decades (albeit, aside from a handful of niche applications).

Modern society’s proliferation of devices running at consistently faster speeds has seen air cooling struggle to meet the demands placed upon it. With the need for an alternative method clearly evident and fluid’s superior ability to remove heat from components, several companies have attempted to overcome the traditional challenges associated with liquid cooling.

One such business is Iceotope, the expertise of which is built on a pedigree of UK ingenuity and innovation. Iceotope is based at the AMP Technology Centre on the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Sheffield, just across the road from the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

A shift in focus

Liquid Cooling - One of Iceotope’s tower-level liquid cooled server is in use at the AMRC’s carbon fibre lab – image courtesy of Iceotope.
One of Iceotope’s tower-level liquid cooled server is in use at the AMRC’s carbon fibre lab – image courtesy of Iceotope.

To date, Iceotope’s 32-strong workforce has been focused on development and establishing the technology in the marketplace via prototypes and user feedback. The successfully commercialisation of its product in 2016 saw the business sell more systems in 2017 than in its entire history.

So, what exactly is Iceotope’s technology? In the world of liquid cooling, there are two principle factors: the liquid coolant, and the means of delivery.

Mineral oil is a popular choice, but can be quite a dangerous substance to have flowing through a data centre or work environment due to its flammable nature. Another method sees water delivered directly to a computer processor via a tube in conjunction with traditional air-cooling fans.

Then there is the full immersion method, which Iceotope employs.

The unique coolant blend Iceotope uses is called Galden, and is a completely inert, fully insurable, fire suppressing liquid that evaporates to the touch – something I can attest to having dunked my hand in a container of it (during a controlled, supervised experiment, I hasten to add).

Aside from buying in the coolant from Italy, Iceotope designs and manufactures every system it produces by hand in the UK. Furthermore, much of the components it uses are sourced locally.

I recently sat down with Stephen Hollingshead, Iceotope’s chief finance and operating officer, to uncover how the business is redefining the cooling landscape.

Cultural inertia

There are a number of challenges associated with liquid cooling, and Iceotope has reportedly eliminated all of them, according to Hollingshead. Its technology allows servers to work more efficiently, use less energy, operate in silence and offers greater resilience of components. The sticking point, however, is not the technology, but business culture and executive mindsets.

The key challenge for the business moving forward is demonstrating that its system is more reliable, safer and delivers long-term benefits – image courtesy of Iceotope.
The key challenge for the business moving forward is demonstrating that its system is more reliable, safer and delivers long-term benefits – image courtesy of Iceotope.

“If I go to the head of IT at a large company and say I can save 80% on his air conditioning bill, their first thought will be, ‘What if it fails?’ Their concern is that any failure is likely to cost far more than 80% of his HVAC bill. Air cooling is the industry norm and is a recognised cost, so why take the risk?

“Rather than exploring innovation and potential savings, the overriding mindset revolves around not messing up, which leads to inertia. We’re working hard to overcome that barrier because at some point in time, they’re going to have embrace change, it is going to happen with or without them.”

The nearby Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) is, by definition, full of people who seek to push the envelope, to identify and employ cutting-edge thinking. For a while now, it has been using Iceotope’s systems in several different, real-world applications.

“One of the interesting applications for shop floors is the system AMRC has integrated into its carbon fibre lab, which is a tower-level liquid cooled server,” Hollingshead noted.

“That system was selected because the previous air-cooled equipment was being clogged up by the dust and fibres being produced during the manufacturing process and would break down every six to eight weeks.

“The business cost of having to deal with such frequent, recurring downtime can escalate very quickly. However, no dust can enter our compact modular sealed units, they offer continuous operation; a benefit supported by the fact that liquid cooling doesn’t slow down or wear out.”

Not just hot air

As compute power continues to increase, air cooling is expected to naturally become redundant. In light of this, I asked Hollingshead what the future held for Iceotope.

“The key challenge is get the technology accepted because IT is a very conservative, safety-conscious, failure-conscious industry. We’ve got to demonstrate that our system is more reliable, safer, delivers long-term benefits and enables businesses to do tomorrow what is considered impossible today,” he said.

“While the industry is conservative, it knows how to manage change and our system will be tested in the months ahead. The IT industry doesn’t work in years, it works in months. So, 2018 is going to be crucial for the business.”