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Will oil cooling in the data center catch on? Intel thinks so

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September 2, 2012

Intel says that a fast way to cool down a busy server is to drop it and let it soak a bit in a big tank of mineral oil. Sounds a bit crazy you might say? Read on...

It’s a technique that Intel has been testing over the past ten months. Running servers in little oil-filled boxes built by an Austin, Texas, company called Green Revolution Cooling, Intel seems enthusiastic when it comes to cooling down servers.

And it turns out that once you take out the server’s fans and seal up the hard drives inside, oil-cooling a server works out pretty well according to the chip giant.

In its tests, Green Revolution’s 'CarnotJet' cooling solution actually used less energy than its air-cooled counterpart, said Dr. Mike Patterson, a power and thermal engineer with Intel.

The chip maker found that oil-cooled systems only needed another 2 or 3 percent of their power for cooling. That’s far less than your typical server, which has a 50 or 60 percent overhead in the quantity of cooling fans it needs.

And the world’s most efficient data centers — those run by Google for example — can get that number down to 10 or 20 percent. Intel’s research is part of a much larger initiative to significantly cut down on the overall power consumption in today's modern data centers that are used by large companies and the government.

By the highest margin, power is the most costly aspect of all data center operations, particularly if you’re running the sort of massive computing facilities that underpin complex web services as popular as Google or similar internet services.

And although it’s still considered a cutting-edge technology, Green Revolution Cooling sure hopes to have a positive effect on data centers. As Green Revolution’s manager of marketing David Banys sees it, an oil-cooled data center could be set up just about anywhere, and at a cost that would rival other, more traditional cooling technologies.

“In fact, there’s no need for chillers anymore. And there’s also no need for raised floors either,” Banys added. But does all that oil hurt the hardware in any way you might ask? Well, after running the servers for a year in its New Mexico data center, Intel popped some of its servers open and discovered that the oil hadn’t harmed things at all.

Because oil-cooled servers are kept at a stable temperature, it may turn out that they’re even more reliable than their air-cooled counterpart, Banys says. But that’s an area for future research, however.

But, as anything else, there is a downside however. If you eventually need to open up an oil-cooled server to replace a defective part, it can get a little dirty in there. One of the Intel techicians working on the various tests in the company’s New Mexico data center brought in a change of clothes everyday, just in case he needed to pull the plug, drain the oil, and work with one of the systems, so this may not be for everybody.

Plus, Green Revolution recommends an oil change every 5 to 10 years. Nevertheless, the Carno Jets still are more power-efficient, and Patterson says that data center managers might eventually want to test them out.

“If and when server makers get around to doing this, then we think the adoption rate could be pretty reasonable,” adds Banys.

Also, in addition to removing fans and sealing up hard drives, or switching the servers to solid state drives, which have no moving parts, server makers also need to remove the conductive grease between the server’s processor and its heat sink, because it can leach out into the mineral oil, Intel warns.

But according to Green Revolution Cooling, at least one server maker is getting ready to ship this type of oil-bath-ready servers: SuperMicro. David Banys says that SuperMicro should be announcing its servers any day now. SuperMicro couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, but we did talk to Jonathan Price of Sun Hosting and he told us that SuperMicro will in fact start shipping such servers by mid-September. About forty percent of servers acquired and installed in Sun Hosting's data centers are SuperMicro.

In other IT news

Leaders of the project to develop Java EE 7 (the next version of Oracle's Java platform for enterprise computing) have recommended that certain planned components of the platform be deferred to a later version in the interest of keeping the project on schedule.

Some in the IT industry were not surprised to read that since they expected it to happen. One observer even said: "This isn't the first time we see this, and it most likely won't be the last either.

"Despite our best intentions, our progress has been slow on the cloud side of our agenda," said Linda DeMichiel, the specification leader for Java EE 7 at Oracle.

She even added that providing solid support for PaaS (platform-as-a-service) environments and multi-tenancy would likely delay the project for another year or two.

"We have therefore proposed to the Java EE 7 Expert Group that we adjust our course of action-— namely, to stick to our current target release dates, and defer the remaining aspects of our agenda for PaaS enablement and multi-tenancy support to Java EE 8," DeMichiel wrote in a blog post.

Her comments are sure to anger and worry many in the Java community, since a year ago Oracle was crowing that Java EE 7 would be "the best application server built for the cloud," and that adding cloud features to the platform was central to its strategy.

DeMichiel admitted that the foot-dragging, often near-glacial pace of the Java EE development effort must take at least part of the blame for its failure to produce timely support for cloud enterprise Java apps development and integration in the enterprise segment of the industry.

"Partially, this has been due to a lack of maturity in the segment for provisioning, multi-tenancy, elasticity, and the deployment of applications in the cloud," she wrote. "And also, it is due to our conservative approach in trying to get things right in view of limited industry experience in the cloud area when we started this work at Oracle."

Overambitious product roadmaps are becoming an alarming trend for Java development at Oracle. Just six weeks ago, Java SE 8-– the next version of the core Java platform, suffered a similar setback when Oracle decided to defer a much-anticipated modularization feature.

Source: Green Revolution Cooling Inc.

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