Datacenter liquid cooling update: New suppliers target edge compute and the cloud

New suppliers of datacenter direct liquid cooling (DLC) technology have entered the market over the last 18 months looking to apply the technology to meet computing demands outside the niche of HPC in edge and cloud (including hyperscale) datacenters.

Recently formed suppliers include Asperitas, Ebullient and SDS (RuggedPOD). Established vendors such as Dell, Clustered Systems Company, CoolIT Systems, Iceotope and Green Revolution Cooling (GRC) are also continuing to evolve, and have developed new products and partnerships for DLC-based systems in micro-datacenters and Open Compute Project (OCP)-compliant architectures.

DLC is one of more than a dozen technologies that we are evaluating as part of our upcoming Disruptive Technologies in the Datacenter, a follow up on our widely read and referenced 2013 long form report.

The 451 Take

As we have pointed out in previous reports, we believe DLC has the potential to significantly improve the efficient design and operation of some datacenter types: particularly HPC and micro-datacenters for edge compute. However, adoption continues to be relatively low compared to air-based cooling, despite persuasive arguments from suppliers regarding the capital and operating efficiencies of DLC. We expect uptake will increase (along with other forms of close-coupled cooling), but there could also be some supplier consolidation in the future. It is unlikely that one type of DLC will become dominant (e.g., cold plates versus immersion) because the different technologies suit specific use cases. Those suppliers that have clarified their business strategies, including partnering with established IT and datacenter-equipment vendors, seem best positioned to take more market share or benefit from a profitable exit.

DLC, also known as on-chip cooling, is a method of heat dissipation where the processor or other components are close to or fully immersed in a liquid. Over the last five years, there has been a steady increase in the number of suppliers offering DLC.

All of the major OEMs (Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Lenovo) now have a system with integrated DLC (either developed in-house or licensed from DLC specialists). We estimate that there are approximately 20 suppliers of DLC technology or systems, and that most pure-play suppliers have datacenter revenue below $5m.

Suppliers can be split between those providing technology based on the immersion of components (in a mineral oil or synthetic dielectric coolant) and those that use water-cooled cold plates to replace traditional heat sinks. A minority also use heat pipes or other refrigerants. (See our Datacenter Cooling Market Map 2016 report.)

Supplier activity

Recent strategies adopted by new entrants and established providers include:

  • Bringing in business-focused management to replace founders or previous CEOs with mainly technical or engineering expertise. A number of established DLC suppliers have struggled to commercialize their products and services despite making convincing cases for the theoretical efficiencies of using liquid over air-based systems. Recently seated management at some suppliers has already helped improve their companies' go-to-market strategies by building partnerships and customer relationships, and communicating more succinct business cases for DLC.

  • Adjusting use cases and customer targeting. The majority of early-wave DLC suppliers were focused on HPC as the primary target market due to the high rack densities required by compute-intensive workloads. However, the emergence of edge compute (driven by IoT and other applications) and the requirement for ruggedized IT infrastructure outside of traditional whitespaces is also seen as a potential market for DLC technology. A number of established and new DLC entrants are actively targeting edge compute – some with fully self-contained micro-modular datacenter designs. Other suppliers – such as Asperitas – believe DLC could be used to further improve the cost efficiencies of hyperscale cloud datacenters. Dell developed its Triton system for eBay, but admitted that the company's high-density sites (40kW per rack) are atypical compared with most other hyperscale operators. However, Chinese internet giant Baidu has said it is investing in DLC to support its buildout of machine learning and AI services.

  • Developing custom IT and OCP-compliant hardware. The benefits of combining DLC and OCP-based designs include overall cost reduction. OCP is designed to strip out excessive systems costs compared to IT hardware from conventional OEMs. DLC technology adds some incremental system costs, but reduces the need for expensive mechanical cooling and improves server performance. However, these savings may only be realized when DLC-equipped OCP systems are deployed at scale.

The following suppliers have either entered the market or updated their business and technology plans over the last 18 months:

Asetek. Founded in 2000, Denmark-based Asetek is a cold-plate DLC supplier that built its business by licensing its technology to high-end workstation and gaming-machine suppliers, including Dell. It also has a datacenter-specific technology business, but sales remain significantly smaller than its workstation revenue.

For Q1 2017, the company reported overall revenue of $11.5m, up 10% year-on-year. However, datacenter-specific revenue was $0.4m, a decrease from $1m in the prior year, due to fewer shipments to OEM customers.

Asetek secured a number of notable deals in 2015/2016 including licensing its technology to Fujitsu and Penguin Computing (based on OCP designs). Asetek held an IPO on the Oslo Stock Exchange in Q2 2013, which raised about $25m, and valued the company at $93m. It is now valued at more than $250m.

Asperitas. Netherlands-based supplier Asperitas was founded in 2015, but had its official technology launch in 2017. Founder and CEO Rolf Brink originally planned to build a ruggedized IT system for ships, before realizing that the technology had wider applications.

Asperitas' AIC24 immersion cooling technology, which can contain up to 48 servers, is similar in some respects to GRC's 'bath of coolant' design. It uses natural convection (as does Iceotope) to circulate dielectric fluid (mineral oil) rather than energy-intensive pumps. The system could be considered a micro-datacenter because it includes integrated power distribution, switching and cable management.

Asperitas also developed its own Immersed Computing server designs (along with partner SuperMicro), but states that any server (with the correct modifications) can be used. The technology is suited to HPC and edge computing, but also large hyperscale cloud sites, according to Asperitas. Other partners include Starline, University of Leeds, Shell and DCIM supplier Perf-IT. Asperitas also plans to create partnerships with complementary DLC and other cooling specialists.

Clustered Systems Company. The privately owned, specialist DLC system supplier's Touch Cooling technology is based on liquid-cooled cold plates, and was originally developed for use with standard 1U servers. Clustered partnered with New Mexico-based IT hardware and services company Aquila to develop Aquarius, an OCP server and rack design that uses DLC.

The resulting Aquarius system, announced in late 2016, uses cold plates to provide cooling to all of the main heat-producing server components. As a result, up to 95% of the server heat load can be directed into the coolant. Aquila is also developing a range of micro-modular datacenter designs based on the same Aquarius technology.

CoolIT Systems. Established in 2001, Canada-based CoolIT is a DLC technology supplier to high-end workstation component makers, as well as workstation and server system vendors. CoolIT's technology is based on the use of water-cooled cold plates rather than full immersion. This means that its technology is easier to retrofit and install, but does not remove as much of the IT heat load as immersion systems.

In 2016, it announced a partnership with (and investment from) German cooling specialist STULZ (via its US entity STULZ Air Technology Systems). Under the terms of the deal, STULZ is able to perform installations of CoolIT Systems. STULZ will also eventually manufacture and assemble certain components for CoolIT systems. CoolIT continues to play a leading role in the Green Grid's liquid cooling working group that is in the process of developing more standards around DLC to help drive uptake.

Dell. In Q3 2016, Dell became the latest of the large systems makers to develop a server architecture based on DLC technology. The system, code-named Triton, was developed as a proof-of-concept design for eBay, but is available to other operators via Dell's Extreme Scale Infrastructure unit.

Ebullient. Wisconsin-based supplier Ebullient entered the DLC market in 2015. The company's DirectJet DLC technology uses non-immersion two-phase cooling. The 3M-engineered fluid undergoes a phase change, which Ebullient states enables 12 times more heat to be absorbed than mineral oil and six times more than water.

The 3M fluid (also used by Iceotope) is a dielectric, so it doesn't harm electronics in the event of a leak. Partners include Airedale, Rittal and 3M. Ebullient is mainly targeting non-HPC facilities including cloud service providers, and it states that operators can cut cooling costs by 75% compared to traditional air-based cooling.

Green Revolution Cooling. Christiaan Best and Mark Tlapak founded Texas-based GRC in 2008. The company's CarnotJet technology is essentially a large bath-like container of dielectric fluid (mineral oil), into which standard servers (with some modifications) are fully immersed. In 2016, Best changed roles to CTO, and former Compaq and APC exec Peter Poulin was appointed CEO. GRC announced a strategic partnership with HVAC reseller Heat Transfer Solutions, which made an undisclosed investment in the company.

GRC has also developed a range of custom servers (with partners SuperMicro and Gigabyte Technology) known as Minimus. Ghe company developed an online tool to allow customers to configure the processor, memory and other components of Minimus servers. It also developed a Minimus Pod design with integrated servers, cooling and power distribution. GRC says that several thousand Minimus servers have already been deployed.

Iceotope. Originally launched in 2009, Iceotope is a supplier of immersion DLC technology. After an initial stumble, it was relaunched in 2012 with the involvement of UK entrepreneur Peter Hopton, who was appointed chief executive in 2013, but subsequently shifted to become technology director. CEO David Craig now oversees the company's business strategy, which includes focusing on edge compute, and deemphasizing its previous focus on HPC.

Iceotope says sales increased significantly in 2016, including in new markets such as defense and manufacturing. Its PetaGen system (which is in the process of being renamed) includes a micro-datacenter design with integrated power and cooling as well as custom server designs (including a GPU-based system released in 2016). It also developed a passively cooled DLC workstation product (for manufacturing), and is in the process of reengineering its server system to reduce cost and complexity.

Iceotope has an indirect technology partnership with Schneider Electric (via an investment from Aster Capital, which represents Schneider). Schneider has developed a range of micro-datacenter designs for edge compute that could eventually include a DLC-based system.

LiquidCool Solutions. Minnesota-based LiquidCool changed its name from Hardcore Computer in 2012. The company also changed its focus from selling liquid-cooled gaming machines and blade servers to licensing its DLC technology to systems makers and integrators.

It has more than 20 employees, and partners include systems maker SuperMicro and engineering company Johnson Controls. In 2016, it introduced two new Clamshell server designs for cloud and HPC applications. LiquidCool's Rugged Terrain server is designed for use outside traditional whitespaces.

SDS. Splitted-Desktop Systems (SDS) developed a micro-modular datacenter known as RuggedPOD. The integrator makes use of highly efficient immersion liquid cooling based on organic oil. The system has been in development since 2013, and is being field tested. We anticipate it going to full production in 2017.

SDS plans to develop the product itself, but is also working with the OCP community to adopt its designs. RuggedPOD targets a range of use cases, from telecom base stations to the military. It could also help meet the requirement for more compute capacity at the edge.

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