Microsoft is submerging its server racks in boiling liquid to keep them cool

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Microsoft is submerging server racks in liquid to keep them cool.
Image: Microsoft

Typically, the idea of liquid and electronics coming near each other is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. That’s especially true when dealing with server racks holding hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of components.

If you’re Microsoft, you aren’t worried. That’s because the Big Tech firm is taking a strange approach to keeping its servers cool. It is submerging them in a special non-conductive fluid and allowing them to boil—yes, really. Here’s how the bizarre method works.

Cold Boil

The sight of computers sitting in a bath of boiling liquid is simply bizarre. There’s no getting used to it. However, Microsoft believes it could be the future of server cooling.

The special fluorocarbon-based liquid is non-conductive, which means it can touch all of the components without shorting them out. Equally important is the fluid’s thermodynamics. It has a much lower boiling point than water at just 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). As the liquid saps away heat from the components, it starts to boil.

Then, the liquid turns into steam, evaporates, and rains back into the container as a liquid once again. The closed-loop design means that Microsoft doesn’t need to continually pump fresh liquid into the setup. Moreover, the low boiling temperature of the liquid allows it to effectively cool the server racks without the need for external cooling. The components are able to run at full power without the risk of overheating.

Those familiar with data centers and server rooms know that the most expensive part of their maintenance is keeping them cool. Doing so requires vast amounts of energy using traditional methods.

With Microsoft’s submersion method, those costs are slashed. The system requires virtually no energy to keep the components cool, meaning that the only energy costs are the ones related to keeping the system running.

Pressing Need

In a press release detailing how the submersion system works, Microsoft explains why finding new ways to keep data centers cool is extremely important. The chip industry is quickly coming to the end of Moore’s Law. As transistor widths reach the atomic level, there isn’t much more that companies can do to shrink them.

However, demand for computing power continues to rise each year. As such, manufacturers have started designing chips capable of handling more electric power. This, of course, leads to components that produce more heat as they run.

To ensure these systems are safe, more cooling power is also needed. Christian Belady, vice president of Microsoft’s data center advanced development group, says, “Air cooling is not enough. That’s what is driving us to immersion cooling, where we can directly boil off the surfaces of the chip.”

Interestingly, Microsoft likens the liquid-cooling approach to Moore’s Law in its own way. Belady notes, “Liquid cooling enables us to go denser, and thus continue the Moore’s Law trend at the data center level.”

This isn’t the first time submersion cooling has been used to keep large-scale computing operations cool. For instance, a startup called Submer dunks server racks in a special goo to keep them running efficiently.

It will be interesting to see how this technology develops in the coming years. In all likelihood, it will be an important, if not essential, part of data center management.

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