Intel Tests Submerging Servers in Oil to Reduce Cooling, Power Costs

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2012-09-04

Intel officials have ended a yearlong test in which they submerged servers in mineral oil as a way to keep the systems cool, and they reportedly are happy with the results.

The giant chip maker immersed the servers in the mineral oil developed by a company called Green Revolution Cooling, whose CarnoJet System is designed to keep servers running much cooler than traditional air-cooling technologies. According to Green Revolution Cooling officials, the CarnoJet System can reduce power consumption related to cooling in a data center by as much as 95 percent, and the total energy consumed by half.

Data center power and cooling costs are significant concerns to organizations, so any technology that can drive down the costs is going to draw some interest. Having a top-tier technology vendor such as Intel say good things about it doesn't hurt, either.

Mike Patterson, senior power and thermal architect at Intel, told technology news site GigaOm that Green Revolution's technology seems safe for servers and their components, and that it appears to do the job of driving down the amount of heat generated and power consumed by the machines.

According to Patterson, server racks that are cooled by traditional air technologies operate with a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.6, while the PUE rating for Intel servers that were submerged in Green Revolution's GreenDEF mineral oil coolant were between 1.02 and 1.03. The PUE is a metric used to measure the energy efficiency of systems by looking at the amount of power needed to run the server and the amount of power to cool it. The closer to 1 that score is, the better. To reach close to 1 through traditional air- and liquid-cooling technologies would cost a lot of money and require significant innovation, Intel's Patterson said.

He also noted that being immersed in the mineral oil did not damage the server or its various components, from hard drives to processors. After the yearlong immersion test ended, Intel sent the systems to its labs for analysis, which "came back with a thumbs-up that a year in the oil bath had no ill effects on anything they can see," Patterson told GigaOm.

Power and cooling costs increasingly have become key issues for organizations, particularly those with massive, highly dense data centers that run massive numbers of workloads. Data center infrastructure vendors and chip makers alike are continuously looking for new ways to increase the efficiency of their products, and businesses have embraced a growing range of cooling options, from traditional air and water solutions to the use of outdoor air to the idea of allowing data centers to run hotter than has been done in the past.

Green Revolution has been working on its technology for several years. In the CarnoJet System, the servers are put into the GreenDEF mineral oil, which is designed to absorb the heat created by the machines. The heated coolant is then drawn by a pump module, where it's then filtered and cooled before being put back into rack systems housing the servers. Green Revolution offers server racks of 10U (17.5 inches), 42U (73.5 inches) and 60U (105 inches).

Now that the yearlong immersive test is done, it's still unclear whether Intel will adopt the Green Revolution technology for its own data centers. According to Patterson, the company is still in the evaluation phase, seeing how housing the systems in the coolant impacts performance and other metrics.

He also said that the idea of immersing data center systems in coolant might find faster acceptance among C-level executives-who are the ones paying the bills-than with data center administrators, who may be more worried about housing their servers in mineral oil.

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