Finding New Ways To Cool Data Centers Is Big Tech's Newest Arms Race

Finding New Ways To Cool Data Centers Is Big Tech's Newest Arms Race 


 The debate over bitcoin's environmental footprint has shaken its price, and prompted a public discussion about the environmental footprints of various industries, from oil & gas to tech to Wall Street. In a gauge of the public's interest in the environmental footprint of various industries vs. crypto, one chart that sought to offer some context for the bitcoin network's energy usage went viral.

Still, as Bloomberg concedes, all those emails, memes, videos, PDFs and photos need to be stored somewhere. And with most companies increasingly reliant on cloud providers like AWS and Microsoft Azure, these companies are building data centers like crazy just to keep up with the demand. Right now, data centers consume between 2% and 4% of the world's electricity. However, engineers are scrambling to suppress costs as much as possible by finding new and innovative ways to cool the processors in their data centers (since cooling often accounts for half, or more, of a data center's energy usage).

The race to find new cooling strategies has apparently become so competitive, that a handful of startups have decided to take on Microsoft and Amazon as everybody races to develop increasingly effective solutions.

As the CEO of one of these startups told BBG: David Craig can’t do much about the congestion, but he says he’s got a fix for the heat: A liquid that bathes the cores of processors to keep things at a relatively chilly 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). "As we process much more data, the chips are becoming three, four, five times hotter," says Craig, chief executive officer of Iceotope Technologies

At this point processors are becoming so efficient that pretty soon even the most efficient air conditioners available right now won't be able to keep up with them, making America's tech infrastructure vulnerable to outages.

While some heat is good for computers, too much can cause systems to crash, and with each generation of computer chips running faster and hotter, the systems will soon be too hot for even the most efficient air conditioner. Finding better ways to keep temperatures down could save the industry some $10 billion a year on electricity alone, according to Uptime. “Air just isn’t a very effective medium for transferring heat,” says Rabih Bashroush, global head of IT advisory services at Uptime.

Decades ago, companies kept most of their data on-site downloaded on the hard drives of their computers. But those days - when a simple breeze from an open window was enough to adequately cool computers - are long gone.

Solutions focused on using non-reactive liquids to cool the processors appear to be in vogue now as the next hot new thing. Both Microsoft and Isotope, the startup whose CEO we quoted above, are heavily investing in the new technology.

The market for equipment used to cool computer gear hit $10.5 billion in 2019 and is growing 13% a year, according to Allied Market Research, sparking a race among companies ranging from startups such as Iceotope to the likes of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Newer strategies focus mostly on liquid technologies, including circulating specially formulated fluids through tubes, submerging processors in the stuff, and even building data centers under the sea. Market researcher PitchBook reports that venture capital investment in data-center-cooling startups more than doubled last year, to $34 million. “Liquid cooling can provide more service in less space,” says Arman Shehabi, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who studies power consumption in computers.

Microsoft Corp., which runs more than 200 data centers globally, is testing systems in which servers are bathed directly in a fluid that doesn’t conduct electricity. It estimates liquid cooling could allow it to fit 10 times as much computing power in the same space. “We’re just starting down the liquid path,” says Christian Belady, chief of the unit that develops technology for data centers. “You’re going to see a lot of rapid change in how we do things.”

At least a dozen smaller startups have joined the fray. Spain’s Submer Technologies SL sells sealed pods that are filled with servers bathed in a nonconducting liquid and can be plugged directly into a network. The company says the excess heat can be used to warm nearby buildings, and the technology extends the life of the computer because no dust reaches the processor. Netherlands-based Incooling BV uses a fluid that gets boiled into a gas by the processors before being cooled back into a liquid and recirculated, which the company argues is the most efficient way to absorb heat. “We’re able to maximize the potential of every component,” says co-founder Helena Samodurova.

The startups haven't had much trouble raising capital so far, making this a rare business where Microsoft can't simply buy its way out of the competition.

Iceotope, based in Sheffield, a three-hour drive north of London, has raised more than $10 million from venture capital backers since its founding in 2005. It initially sought to manufacture its own cooling systems, but about five years ago it shifted to developing the underlying technology. Iceotope is raising another round of funding from strategic investors that it expects will give it better entrée to more customers, and last year it opened an office in the U.S., aiming to expand its business there. Although the company had less than £10 million ($14 million) in 2020 sales, Craig says he aims to at least double revenue this year as partnerships with computer manufacturer Lenovo Group Ltd. and some smaller companies start to bear fruit. “The market is getting hot, fast—no pun intended,” he says. “If we don’t deal with cooling efficiently, we’ll be in real trouble.”

Like the old saying goes: To the victor goes the spoils.


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