Is Water-Cooling the Future for Data Centres?

Back when large mainframe computers were used; water-cooling was the only way to go. To stop these expensive machines from overheating water was pumped directly into cold plates within the machines. Over time as computers reduced in size and the heat output was reduced using water (or any liquid) for cooling feel out of favour. It was replaced with air-cooling, which was used across data centres of all shapes and sizes. Many data centre managers now won’t even consider water-cooling. However, as heat densities in data centres continually increase, it is becoming harder and harder for air-cooling to get the job done.

Until recently, 10Kw cabinets were considered the highest density to be commonly used. Now though, densities of up to 5x more are being used more and more. This has led to the return of water-cooling, as it is the only way to keep these kinds of units cool. Close-coupled cool units have now become a popular way of addressing the heat. As the demand for an efficient cooling system increase, other options are being looked at with increased interest, including liquid cooled heat sinks, like the ones used in the original computer mainframes or immersing cabinets in a cooling bath of fluid.

These aren’t the only ideas being considered, however. One of the more ambitious ideas is a colocation data centre facility that is being built on barges that will float on San Francisco Bay. Oceans hold a practically limitless supply of water to use so it makes sense to use them as one gigantic heat sink. Floating on the water also protects data centres from seismic events that land-based ones could be subject to, and reduce costs because expensive chiller plants are no longer needed. The risks include storms and tsunamis. Can these be planned for? Will anyone be truly comfortable with this solution?

Another idea that is currently being pioneered by Microsoft is underwater data centres. These are designed as individual pods each containing the racks and servers you would expect but cooled by a water cooling system supplied directly from the sea. Each pod is independent, so more can be added or relocated depending on the local need. Other than the cool benefits, there are a few other advantages to building underwater. For starters there are no laws or different environments to overcome underwater, it is all consistent no matter where you look. In addition, these data centres can be located very close to coastal towns, making these data centres close than they would normally be able to be located.

It’s safe to say that water near-to and directly cooling IT equipment is here to stay, and people will become more and more comfortable with that. However, the new ideas that are currently being trialled will have to prove there effectiveness, in not only cooling but security and safety as well.

If you are looking into building a new data centre or renovating an old one, why not contact us and see how we can help.