Schneider backs British liquid cooling startup

Support from the datacentre giant could help Iceotope spread its innovative immersion cooling system around the globe

UK immersion cooling pioneer Iceotope has secured £6 million of funding from a venture capital consortium whose leading investor is global datacentre giant Schneider Electric. The Sheffield-based startup is hopeful the partnership will help it gain global recognition and customers for its ultra-efficient cooling technology.

Iceotope has developed a sealed, liquid-cooled server system for high-density computing environments that combines the simplicity of hot-swappable blades with the energy efficiency of fan-free direct cooling. The technology captures 95% of the heat generated by servers which can then be channelled into standard domestic radiators and central heating systems. This enables organisations to build high-performance computing (HPC) set-ups in facilities with limited space and no means of ventilation.

The company won ‘best technology innovation’ at Computer Weekly’s Datacentre Awards last year for its high-density HPC installation at the University of Leeds. It has since kitted out the 300m² Poznan Supercomputing and Networking Centre in Poland.

Peter Hopton, Iceotope founder and CEO, said the company would use the funding to commercialise the product and expand its workforce, which currently numbers fewer than 20 staff. “We’ll be using the money to increase sales and marketing activity and ensure we have adequate resources to handle growing demand. Our priority is to generate more interest in the technology and create an ecosystem of IT vendors supporting it,” he says.

Our priority is to generate more interest in the technology and create an ecosystem of IT vendors supporting it

Peter Hopton, Iceotope

Hopton added Schneider’s involvement was key. “To be supported by such a leading brand in datacentre cooling and infrastructure is fantastic news for us. We started talking to the company almost a year ago and they were interested in our technology from the outset. The investment is proof of that, but we’re also talking to the company about a strategic relationship which should change the game for us even more than the cash,” he says.

The company believes that as the need for denser, more efficient datacentres grows, liquid cooling technology will move beyond HPC environments into cloud and hosting providers, and eventually into the enterprise datacentre market. “It will progress fairly slowly but I’d like to think we’ll be at the forefront of that wave, gaining a large proportion of market share as we grow.”

Currently, the only serious competition in the immersion cooling market comes from US company Green Revolution Cooling, whose customers include the US Air Force, US Department of Defense and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Clive Longbottom, founder and service director at analyst Quocirca, said both companies’ technologies have pros and cons. “Green Revolution’s solution is a bath-based system, where existing kit can be dunked in its coolant, meaning you can stick with Dell, HP, IBM or whatever kit you want. Iceotope is a contained system, so you have to use their kit – which is a pity, as it’s currently based on commodity server boards that an enterprise may not take to. 

"But Green Revolution’s solution has its own problems. Baths can splash coolant when equipment is being taken out for upgrade or maintenance and the amount of coolant required is much larger,” he says.

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“A bath-based system also needs considerable design expertise and construction time and costs . A contained coolant system like Iceotope’s, with embedded server, storage and network components, can be built, implemented and extended far more easily.”

But the partnership with Schneider, and the fact Iceotope is talking to various equipment vendors about incorporating its technology, could give it the edge, thought Longbottom. “To my mind, Iceotope is a far more elegant solution. It just needs help to move it to that next level – and that’s what Schneider can provide. Iceotope on its own has struggled to get its voice heard by the main players but with Schneider on board it can be far louder,” he says.

Andrew Donoghue, senior analyst in datacentre technologies as 451 Research, agreed. “The support Iceotope will receive from Schneider should help legitimise direct liquid cooling technology in the conservative eyes of many datacentre operators. Schneider could also help to tackle the lack of standards by supporting Iceotope in building an ecosystem of direct liquid cooling technology, albeit a closed one,” he says.

But while the technology could break out of the HPC arena and into the cloud datacentre market, it may be some time before it reaches the enterprise. “Even with Schneider’s support, cracking the enterprise market is unlikely in the near term unless there is significant increase in rack power densities from the current average of less than 5kw per rack to 20kw or greater,” says Donoghue.

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