Blowing Up Industry Standards in the Data Center Industry

The development of “standards” is a common evolutionary story in every industry.  Data centers are not unique in that respect.  If you stand in the center of Waxpool Road and Loudoun County Parkway in Ashburn (which I would not recommend) you can look in multiple directions and see data centers that were designed and built to address similar customer needs.  Aesthetically, each structure is slightly different, but the building blocks inside have been standardized (200 Watts/SF, 19” racks, air cooling, etc.)

Very soon, some of these decades-old industry standards will be put to the test as new technologies are ready for prime-time.  One of those new entrants is immersion cooling.  We’ve been talking about liquid cooling for quite a while.  Immersion cooling is one version that taps the efficiency benefits of liquid heat removal by submerging IT hardware in a dielectric fluid (oil). 

Immersion cooling systems can extract far more heat in 42U of hardware than traditional air cooling.  The difference is so great, in fact, that it’s possible to build an immersion cooling facility on just 10% of the footprint of a traditional air-cooled data center.  Same capacity….10% of the building space.  Needless to say, a few industry standards are about to be kicked to the curb.

At the same time, we receive daily downloads about AI, VR, AR, 5G, HPC, autonomous vehicles, drones, streaming games, and many other technologies that are expected to flourish once hardware and software are able to fully utilize GPUs, ASICs and FPGA chips.  In a year or two, it may be hard to recognize servers and storage devices.  Instead of motherboards hiding in sleek metal cases with tiny fans blowing air across heat sinks, we could see the emergence of hardware consisting of exposed chips and circuit boards mounted to a framework and immersed in a cooling fluid.

If this convergence of new applications and enabling solutions occurs, everything we know about data centers could change.  A 50 MW facility might consume an acre of space, and not 10 acres.  Vertical area will be more effectively consumed as immersion cooling pods are stacked on shelves much like an Amazon fulfillment center.  Robotic arms will upgrade hardware without the need for human interaction.  PUE’s of 1.03 will be commonplace.

At this point, David A. Patterson’s quote from his 2008 Technical paper “The data center is now the computer” will finally be a reality.

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