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APC says it's time to beat the heat with water

As data centers and their heat loads continue to scale up, many analysts point to water cooling as an inevitability. American Power Conversion's latest system holds potential to set a standard in the data center.

American Power Conversion (APC) is releasing a new water-cooling system that aims to chill hot servers using something you've already got -- plumbing.

Announced Monday, the West Kingston, R.I.,-based company's offering includes UPS power, power distribution and cooling in a standardized, rack-based architecture. The goal of the system is to maintain server heat levels much like the radiator in a car that keeps the engine cool.

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APC said the system is an efficient and safe way to maintain high-density servers that have become difficult to upkeep in the face of drastically increasing heat loads and energy costs.

The system centers around a cooling distribution unit (CDU), a large black cabinet that distributes and manages cooling fluid. The CDU, a black file-cabinet look-alike, pumps water to cool servers using coils, flow meters and variable-speed, hot-swappable fans to adjacent boxes, converting hot exhaust to ambient temperature air.

Neil Rasmussen, chief technical officer and a founder of APC, said in-rack water-cooling enables IT pros to avoid complex heat problems associated with exhaust management. The selling point is an ability to confront and dismiss heat closer to the source, as opposed to trying to overpower the problem with more air conditioning.

"As a heat transport medium, water is very efficient," Rasmussen said. "And it's already a utility in the infrastructure."

The InfraStruXure system is connected through aluminum/plastic tubing sprouting from the CDU, which is designed to be flexible and seamless -- an important gesture to IT managers wary of the nightmarish scenario of wet equipment. It's an anxiety that, though understandable, is something analysts say techies will have no choice but to overcome.

"People are going to have to get over the paranoia," said Robert E. McFarlane, president of the Interport Division of New York-based Shen, Milsom and Wilke Inc. "Paranoia is the reason there's so little water-cooled equipment on the market. We tend to get married to the technologies that we know and are comfortable with, but it's getting to that point where you just can't cool these densities without carrying it in liquid form."

Modern, high-density data centers can consume massive amounts of energy, a cooling challenge traditionally managed by simply adding more air at lower temperatures. Cranking the air conditioner, however, has become one of the biggest sinkholes for IT dollars, and a method increasingly repugnant to administrators looking to douse the rising flames of energy cost.

Other analysts agreed that water-cooling is unavoidable in order to support the heat loads of dual-and-beyond cores, and blade server configurations that have shown some of the greatest success in dealing with problems of scale.

"Nothing can destroy a data center faster than water," said Thomas Condon, senior consultant for Chicago-based, System Development Integration, who recollected the swift demise of one data center following the pipe failure of a toilet above the room. "But the danger is primarily psychological. Water cooling is an inevitability and these systems can be made to be extraordinarily reliable -- just as reliable as other systems."

APC's main competitor Liebert Corp. offers a liquid cooling system, the Liebert XD that uses liquid refrigerant rather than water. Server vendors have introduced liquid cooling technologies as well, such as IBM's Cool Blue. Known officially as the eServer Rear Door Heat Exchanger, Cool Blue is a door that hinges to the back of a rack, with a hose installed in the floor that goes up the door. And most recently Hewlett-Packard Co. joined the group with its water cooled rack solution.

It's not too soon to call it a trend.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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