IBM Water-Cooling Technology Helps Computers Beat the Heat, Energy Costs

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Today: Using Unchilled Tap Water

Milnes David, an engineer in IBM's Energy Efficiency Lab in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., inspects the chilled innards of a specially cooled computer the company developed for the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a two-year research project, which is drawing to a close. The project sought to increase the efficiency of the world's 33 million computer servers and resulted in 21 IBM patents for technology known as heat-exchangers, which can cool computer servers using unchilled tap water, an innovation that can slash in half the amount of energy used in data centers.

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1966: IBM Embarks on Water-Cooling Journey

IBM's first use of water to cool computers dates back to 1966, when IBM introduced the System/360 Model 91—the fastest, most powerful computer then in use. It was specifically designed to handle high-speed data processing for scientific applications, such as space exploration, theoretical astronomy, subatomic physics and global weather forecasting. To keep the mainframe computer from overheating, IBM created a specialized water-cooling system.

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1980: Heat Removal From Chips on IBM 3081

The IBM Model 3081 Processor Complex was a mainframe announced Nov. 12, 1980. Two key efficiency features of the 3081 were reduced power consumption of 23 kilowatts—from a previous 68 kilowatts—and built-in water-cooling technology, which provided heat removal from chips beyond the ability of conventional air cooling.

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1990: Mainframe Family Features 8 Water-Cooled Models

Introduced in 1990, the IBM ES/9000 family included eight water-cooled models: the 330, 340, 500, 580, 620, 720, 820 and 900.

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2006: Concepts Shared at Power and Cooling Summit

At a Power and Cooling Summit in London in October 2006, IBM researchers presented their latest research on improving the cooling of computer chips, an increasingly urgent need at the time, given the large amount of heat more powerful processors released and the additional energy required for removing that heat. Looking beyond the limits of air-cooling systems, IBM Zurich researchers reported they were developing a novel approach for water cooling. Called "direct-jet impingement," the process involved squirting water onto the back of a chip and sucking it off again in a perfectly closed system using an array of up to 50,000 tiny nozzles and a complicated tree-like branched return architecture.

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2008: Zero-Emissions Data Center

IBM introduced the Zero Emission Data Center at the March 2008 CeBIT conference. There, IBM researchers introduced an intelligent water-cooling circuit under development for chips. When compared with air-cooled data centers, the intelligent water-cooling circuit not only reduces energy consumption by 40 percent, but also makes waste heat available for direct reuse, such as for heating homes. IBM reported that the first prototype system was already reusing three-quarters of the energy needed to operate the data center.

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2008: IBM's First Water-Cooled Unix Server, Power 575

In April 2008, IBM unveiled the Power 575, a supercomputer incorporating 14 servers built with water piping that threads through the rack and directly into the servers, including water-chilled copper plates that sit on the processor heat sinks.

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2009: Water-Cooled QPACE Supercomputers Top the Green500 List

Three identical water-cooled QPACE supercomputers built in partnership with IBM at Julich Research Centre, the University of Regensburg and the University of Wuppertal topped the November 2009 Green500 list of most energy-efficient supercomputers in the world.

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2010: IBM Aquasar, the First Hot-Water-Cooled Supercomputer

In July 2010, IBM unveiled a first-of-a-kind hot-water-cooled supercomputer to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, marking a new era in energy-aware computing. The system, dubbed Aquasar, reportedly consumed up to 40 percent less energy than a comparable air-cooled machine. Through the direct use of waste heat to provide warmth to university buildings, Aquasar's carbon footprint was reduced by up to 85 percent.

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2012: SuperMUC, the First Commercial Hot-Water-Cooled Supercomputer

IBM in June 2012 said the SuperMUC supercomputer run by the Germany's Bavarian Academy of Science's Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) would use a new revolutionary form of warm-water cooling. Active components like processors and memory are directly cooled with water that can have a temperature of up to 45 degrees Celsius. The high-temperature liquid cooling, together with special system software, promises to cut the energy consumption of the system. Additionally, there are plans for all LRZ buildings to be heated reusing the system's waste heat.

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2012 and Beyond: Turn on the Tap Water

Building on recent innovations in cool circuitry, and warm and hot-water-cooling techniques, IBM researchers in its Poughkeepsie lab have just developed a new technique that allows for the use of unchilled tap water to cool computers. As a result, companies can save more energy and costs by not having to chill or heat their water for the data center.

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