Last year, Intel decided to put a certain Green Revolution Cooling technology to the test, that of immersing servers in mineral oil and, hopefully, keeping them running nice and cool.
It turns out that the idea has a lot of merit. The technology was found to be completely safe for server parts, enough that it may become the norm.
Mike Patterson, senior power and thermal architect at Intel, says oil submersion is nearly ideal for maximizing computer power and data center capacity.
Air-cooled servers run at a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating of about 1.6. That means that the cooling adds 60% more to the power draw of the servers themselves.
The oil-immersed systems managed a PUE effectiveness of 1.02 and 1.03, something that, while not impossible for air or water/liquid-cooling to achieve, would cost too much to invent and install.
“We’re doing our math to understand if we developed an oil optimized platform, what that would mean [for performance, efficiency, etc.],” said Patterson. “I think once it has proven itself in the HPC arena, further adoption will be the next step.”
Currently, the technology is in evaluation phase, so it will be a while before the corporation starts to seriously consider changing its air-cooled servers with oil-bathed ones.
There is also the matter of potential pitfalls on the HPC market. Though oil cooling works, in theory, it may not handle the significantly higher heat generation of supercomputers (compared to normal servers).
“These servers easily consume anywhere between 15 to 20 times the power of a high-end Xeon server,” said Greg Rusu of Peer1 Hosting, when asked by Gigaom about the economic challenges of its on-demand HPC cloud service Zunicore. “They’re not just a little bit hotter, they’re a lot hotter.”
Switching air cooling for oil cooling would have to bring design changes for heatsinks (airflow optimization will have no place), eliminating dependence on fans, sealing HDDs (or going with solid-state drives all the way) and replacing organic materials that may mix with the oil over time.
Quite a bit of hassle, but Patterson thinks the trade-off is worth it. For our part, though, we are wondering how much trouble administrators and repairmen will have when cleaning the hardware in need of fixing.