The Untapped Potential of Liquid Cooling in Modern Data Centres

Ever since IBM sold off its x86 business to Lenovo back in 2014, I’ve been closely watching how the company has transitioned from arguably a commodity player to one that often innovates in unexpected ways, and one such example of this came to my attention recently. During a recent briefing on Lenovo’s offerings to support AI deployments, the company made several references to its advancements in liquid cooling. 

I have to admit that when this topic came up, I got flashbacks to going into the computer room one morning many years ago and being faced with a couple of colleagues wielding mops and buckets. A very old mainframe system we were running at the time had sprung a slight leak overnight. This was back in the 80’s and thankfully the panic was over by the time I’d arrived. 

How times have changed, and as a science fiction aficionado, I’m not sure what I would have thought about the future me matter-of-factly listening to a supplier talking about the hardware needed to drive AI. Indeed, I can get rather pedantic when it comes to defining “AI”, but let’s leave that aside for now. 

Back to the briefing, the cooling references I mentioned were in relation to the GPU-centric hardware needed to deal with various AI/ML workloads, but it’s a topic that’s obviously also relevant to more standard x86 infrastructure as density has increased over time. 

And all this got me thinking about how liquid cooling, in general, may not be discussed as much as it should be, and how many may be unaware of some of the advances that have taken place in recent years.

Taking Lenovo’s progress in this area as an example, we can learn quite a bit about the current state of the art and how advanced cooling capabilities are becoming more mainstream and accessible. The company called its latest Neptune liquid cooling solution “revolutionary”, though in the interests of balance, we shouldn’t forget that other vendors, such as HPE and Dell, also have advanced liquid-cooled offerings. What I found interesting, however, is Lenovo stressing the use of warm rather than cold water, which means the water doesn’t need to be chilled first to provide cooling benefits.

The advantages of this approach can be significant. Liquid cooling allows servers to run more efficiently by reducing the energy needed for cooling, leading to lower data centre costs. Lenovo believes it has the most elegant [sic] liquid cooling solution on the market. The company says it has invested considerable engineering effort developing the technology and as a result is seeing strong demand from customers.

By partnering with colocation providers, Lenovo is also helping its partners offer their customers a ‘cloud-like’ deployment model for AI infrastructure based on liquid-cooled systems. This can allow businesses to access high-performance AI capabilities with cloud economics, without overburdening their facilities, and all while optimising costs and their overall carbon footprint.

To fully appreciate the importance of the topic, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at some bigger picture discussions. The heat extracted by liquid cooling systems can be repurposed for other uses, such as heating buildings, greenhouses, and leisure facilities like swimming pools through heat exchangers. This is more efficient than using air cooling and venting the excess heat, as is the case for the majority of data centre operations today.

For example, the concept of district heating, where a central facility provides hot liquid for heating to multiple buildings, has existed in Europe for a long time, and indeed I live in one such building. Liquid cooling in data centres can tie into this concept beautifully, and several data centres in various parts of Europe and the US are already using heat recapture in a variety of ways.

While liquid cooling has been used in data centres for some time, the technology is now becoming more mainstream, accessible, and affordable. This is opening the door for more efficient data centre configurations, even in smaller scale set ups, and the ability to repurpose waste heat. The increasing focus on environmental sustainability in many geographies could give the door quite a push.

So, if you are involved in data centre expansion or modernisation, it’s important to consider cooling proactively as part of your deliberations rather than treating it as an afterthought or not thinking about it at all. The technology has matured to the point where it’s a lot more effective, cost-efficient, and generally accessible to smaller as well as larger businesses.

And as a final thought, in a recent Freeform Dynamics survey on the topic of supplier management, over a third of the CIOs taking part said they would be shaking up their data centre infrastructure supplier base in 2024.  And as the data suggests, innovations in the areas like the one we have been discussing often catalyse conversations that ultimately lead to a supplier switch, something that you can read more about in the research.  

Data Center
Data Management