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Microsoft debuts liquid cooling for datacenters at a US development facility

Microsoft's new cooling solution for datacenter-scale servers. (Source: Microsoft)
Microsoft's new cooling solution for datacenter-scale servers. (Source: Microsoft)
Microsoft has implemented what it calls the world's first liquid-cooling system for high-performance computing (HPC), at a datacenter located in Washington, US. This prototype rig type uses a custom-designed, electronics-safe dielectric fluid rather than water, which means the servers in question can be immersed in it directly. This, as the OEM asserts, confers various advantages over alternatives such as air-cooling.

Microsoft is a company associated with HPC, cloud, collaboration and AI services on a massive scale. Therefore, its sheer server volume (kind of obviously) produces massive amounts of heat that poses the risk of slow-downs, especially should demand for resources spike (which, according to the OEM, is a daily thing due to peak meeting times and so on).

Therefore, the Redmond giant has been investigating new cooling solutions that are equal to these hyperscale thermal-management requirements. Recent examples include "Project Natick", involving datacenters located on sea-beds filled with dry-nitrogen air. However, it might now be dropped thanks to the latest innovation from the company's Washington advanced development center.

It is a new kind of liquid-based solution, which, according to the facility's vice president Christian Belady, is a superior and much more feasible system for high-volume servers compared to air-cooling. It consists of a steel tank within which a server rig is immersed in a specific dielectric fluid sourced from 3M.

This liquid has a relatively low boiling point, which means it readily converts to vapor as the servers heat up under load. Therefore, it rises toward the lid of the tank in this form, where it encounters chilled fluid-filled coils that divert the heat to a dry cooler located outside the tank.

Accordingly, the vapor converts back to a liquid, which "rains" back onto the servers. Microsoft thusly defines this set-up as a closed-loop, two-phase immersion cooling system. Currently, there is only 1 such tank in use at the OEM's centers, which is being tested for viability at present.

So far, the OEM anticipates reduced failure rates compared to traditional solutions; on the other hand, it has also worked out that any loss in function with this new system would entail increased delays in replacing components as necessary. This is due to the greater need to keep the tank's lid closed at all times, in order to contain the vapor. In that way, it might be the closest thing to a freezer designed by Microsoft.

On the other hand, development engineers at the center such as Husam Alissa and Ioannis Manousakis intimate that this potential disadvantage might be outweighed by the ability to pack these tanks with greater densities of increasingly powerful, low-latency servers over time, while also saving on energy, not to mention water, in the future.

This, in turn, will help Microsoft to hit its latest sustainability and environmental-impact goals. Therefore, should this new form of two-phase immersion cooling pan out, the OEM plans to develop it until it is suitable for a range of additional use-cases. For example, it envisions that these tanks could hold the 5G-connected rigs that control self-driving cars one day.

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> Expert Reviews and News on Laptops, Smartphones and Tech Innovations > News > News Archive > Newsarchive 2021 04 > Microsoft debuts liquid cooling for datacenters at a US development facility
Deirdre O'Donnell, 2021-04-10 (Update: 2021-04-10)