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HP, IBM square off on liquid cooling

HP and IBM are rushing to pour water on hot servers. Big Blue is tackling the problem from a energy efficiency angle while HP wants to help data centers cram more computers into less space.

The more datacenters change, the more they seem to stay the same. Liquid cooling is once again in vogue.

IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. each are marketing new liquid-cooling systems aimed at helping datacenter managers cope with exponential heat densities in server-compacted environments.

Server makers are going up against liquid cooling offerings from entrenched power-equipment suppliers such as Liebert Corp. and American Power Conversion Inc.

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Cool aid or Band-Aid?

According to a February report by research firm Gartner Inc. "Chilled-water cooling solutions represent the way forward, and businesses should plan to install them within the next five years."

IBM struck first in July 2005 by rolling out eServer Rear Door Heat eXchanger, nicknamed "Cool Blue," which consists of a radiator-like component that attaches to most conventional server racks. IBM said Cool Blue removes up to 55,000 BTUS of heat from fully populated server racks and potentially lowers energy costs as much as 15 percent.

IBM designed Cool Blue originally to fit its eServer Cluster 1350 rack, which can house a variety of server and storage units. IBM since has adapted Cool Blue to fit its blade servers, BladeCenter.

Cool Blue also does not require additional fans, a feature that impressed Don Beaty, chair of ASHRAE's technical committee on data center facilities. "A lot of the [new] products need additional fans, but having additional fans means [having] additional energy and additional failure points," said Beaty.

While pricing for Cool Blue heat exchanger starts at about $4,300 per unit, the real cost lies in installation fees that can run tens of thousands of dollars, said Michael Bell, a research vice president with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner.

Whereas IBM is emphasizing fewer BTUs and reduced energy bills, HP is taking a different tack with its Modular Cooling System, unveiled in January 2006. HP said its new cooling system enables server racks to consume up to three times as much power as its existing racks -- up to a staggering 30 kilowatts -- while keeping temperatures at safe operating levels.

The higher power rating comes at a premium: HP charges $30,500 for each rack-cooling unit. HP's system consists of a universal rack enclosure that is standardized to fit HP computing gear, including servers and storage. It also features a power-distribution unit that uses sensing technology to determine an environment's power needs and adjust accordingly.

The Modular Cooling System fits with HP's push toward a holistic approach to tackling data center heat, according to Bell.

The IBM and HP cooling technologies primarily are targeted at large enterprises such as financial houses, healthcare organizations and other companies that rely on dense server clusters to crunch massive datasets.

"I believe that businesses finally have realized that having this equipment sitting in a room sucking up energy and blowing out hot air costs them an awful lot of money over time," said Charles King, principal analyst with Hawyard, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research.

But other experts side more with HP's take, noting that energy savings are nice, but data centers are turning to liquid cooling help support more computing density.

"What we're seeing so far is that water cooling isn't being used so much for pure energy savings. We're seeing it when companies need those extra kilowatts per rack," said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Nashua, N.H.-based research firm Illuminata Inc.

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