December 1, 2023

Green Blog: Cooling a Computer Server With … Mineral Oil?

Intel submerged computer servers in vegetable oil to cool them and reduce energy consumption of a data center.Green RevolutionIntel submerged computer servers in mineral oil to cool them and reduce energy consumption of a data center.Green: Business

When they’re using their smartphones or tapping away on laptops, few people pause to think about the enormous amount of energy needed to power the data centers that store and deliver the information in all those e-mails and on Web sites and Facebook pages.

But maybe we should. A recent study by Pike Research estimated that about 1.5 percent of all electricity generated worldwide goes to power data centers. The attendant greenhouse gas emissions, some 188 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, match the emissions of about 33 million passenger vehicles.

Most of this energy goes to power fans, air conditioners and chillers to circulate air and remove the heat generated by the data centers’ computers, which must operate below a certain temperature. So it’s no surprise that companies that build and maintain data centers focus on how to cool things down more efficiently.

Moving to a cooler Nordic climate makes sense for some, as The Times reported last spring. Google opened a data center in Finland last year that uses cold seawater for the building’s air-cooling systems. And Facebook recently announced plans to build a center in Sweden that will draw in cool air from outdoors.

But Intel, the chip maker, has been experimenting with a less obvious approach: cooling its servers by submerging them in mineral oil.

The company just completed a one-year trial of specialized oil bath and immersion tanks developed by an Austin-based start-up, Green Revolution Cooling. According to the Texas company’s chief executive, Christiaan Best, the equipment involves slight modifications to off-the-shelf computers servers, like removing internal fans. Using oil immersion rather than circulating air can reduce the amount of energy required to cool the computers by 10 to 20 percent, the company estimates.

It seems counterintuitive to dunk your electronic devices in liquid to cool them off, but Mr. Best noted that early supercomputers relied on liquid cooling technologies. (Remember the Cray 2 supercomputer, nicknamed “Bubbles”??)

“The oil serves as a much better conductor of heat away from the computer components compared to air cooling,” Mr. Best said in a telephone interview, “and because the oil does not conduct electricity, the components won’t short out or damage.”

Intel also found that no computer components — processors, hard drives etc. – were damaged from the yearlong immersion in mineral oil.

Green Revolution Cooling is one of a handful of start-ups hoping that oil cooling will catch on. And while Mr. Best is eager to tout the product’s environmentally positive aspects, he expects that savings on energy costs, which can account for 50 percent of total operating costs at a typical data center, will hold the biggest appeal.

“As much as we’d like to save energy for the sake of saving energy, no one will buy it unless it saves money and is cheaper than the alternative,” he said.

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Data Centers’ Power Use Less Than Was Expected

The report, by Jonathan G. Koomey, a consulting professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at Stanford University, found that the actual number of computer servers declined significantly compared to 2010 forecasts because of this lowered demand for computing and because of the financial crisis of 2008 and the emergence of technologies like more efficient computer chips and computer server virtualization, which allows fewer servers to run more programs.

The slowing of growth in consumption contradicts a 2007 forecast by the Environmental Protection Agency that the explosive expansion of the Internet and the computerization of society would lead to a doubling of power consumed by data centers from 2005 to 2010.

In the new study, prepared at the request of The New York Times, Mr. Koomey found that electricity used by data centers worldwide grew significantly, but it was an increase of only about 56 percent from 2005 to 2010. In the United States, power consumption increased by 36 percent, according to Mr. Koomey’s report, titled “Growth in Data Center Power Use 2005 to 2010.”

“Mostly because of the recession, but also because of a few changes in the way these facilities are designed and operated, data center electricity consumption is clearly much lower than what was expected, and that’s really the big story,” said Mr. Koomey.

Though Mr. Koomey was unable to separate the impact of the recession from that of energy-saving technologies, the decline in use is surprising because data centers, buildings that house racks and racks of computers, have become so central to modern life. They are used to process e-mail, conduct Web searches and handle online shopping as well as banking transactions and corporate sales reports.

Moreover, in the period studied, more services that depend on data centers, like cloud computing and streaming of music and movies, became popular.

The influential report issued by the E.P.A. in August of 2007 estimated that national energy consumption by computer servers and data centers would nearly double from 2005 to 2010 to roughly 100 billion kilowatt hours of energy at an annual cost of $7.4 billion. It predicted the centers’ demand for power in the United States would rise by 2011 to 12 gigawatts of power, or the output of 25 major power plants, from 7 gigawatts, or about 15 power plants.

Industry consultants and executives agreed with Mr. Koomey’s new analysis, but they also indicated that the slower growth might be temporary.

“Of course, the market is expanding,” said Jimmy Clidaras, principal engineer for platforms and infrastructure at Google. “We’re doing stuff today in the cloud that we never would have thought of. Music used to be at home and now it’s in the sky.”

“The numbers do make sense,” said Kenneth Brill, founder of the Uptime Institute, an industry consulting group based in Santa Fe, N.M. “But they shouldn’t be taken as indicating the problem’s over. There is certainly increasing energy consumption and that should be a concern for everyone.”

The slowdown in the rate of growth of electricity use is particularly significant because it comes in the midst of the biggest build-out of new data center capacity in the history of the industry.

Fueled by an insatiable demand for new Internet services and a shift to so-called cloud computing services that are largely hosted in commercial data centers and in the large data farms operated by companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, there has been an increasing discussion about the growing percentage of the nation’s electricity that will be consumed by vast data centers being constructed at a record pace.

But the new report indicates that electricity used by global data centers in 2010 remained relatively modest. “Electricity used in global data centers likely accounted for between 1.1 percent and 1.5 percent of total electricity use, respectively. For the U.S. that number was between 1.7 percent and 2.2 percent,” according to the report.

In an earlier paper, Mr. Koomey reported that the power used by servers in data centers represented about 0.5 percent of world electricity consumption in 2005. When cooling and auxiliary infrastructure were included, that figure was about 1 percent, he wrote. The worldwide demand for data center power in 2005 was equivalent to the output of about 17 1,000-megawatt power plants.

As part of his latest research, Mr. Koomey was able to get a more detailed estimate of Google’s contribution to the global growth of power consumption by data centers than has been previously publicly available. Google, which generally builds custom computer servers for its data centers, has been secretive about the number of servers that it uses to power services like Google Search and YouTube.

However, in May a Google executive told Mr. Koomey that the company’s total data center electricity use was less than 1 percent of the Koomey report’s estimate of electricity consumed by data centers worldwide.

If the estimate is accurate, it could confirm the widely held industry perception that Google, with its many large data centers, is relatively more efficient than the mainstream of the data center industry. A vast majority of data center designers choose to use standard industry equipment, not equipment specialized for particular computing tasks.

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Spain Arrests 3 in PlayStation Cyberattacks

In a statement, the police said that with the arrests, they had dismantled the local leadership of the shadowy international network of computer hackers, called Anonymous, that has claimed responsibility for a wide variety of attacks.

According to the statement, Anonymous is made up of people from various countries organized into cells that share common goals. The activists operate anonymously, but in a coordinated fashion.

One of the “hacktivist” detainees, the police said, had harbored a computer server in an apartment in the northern port city of Gijon, from which the group attacked the Web sites of the Sony PlayStation online gaming store.

It also was used in coordinated cyberattacks against two Spanish banks, BBVA and Bankia, the Italian energy company Enel, as well as government sites in Spain, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Iran, Chile, Colombia and New Zealand, the police said.

The police provided little information about the suspects.

It was not immediately clear if the group had been the sole, or even the main, perpetrator of the recent attacks on Sony. About a dozen Sony Web sites and services around the world have been hacked, with the biggest breaches forcing the Tokyo-based company to shut down its popular PlayStation Network for a month beginning in April.

The company has acknowledged that hackers compromised personal data for tens of millions of user accounts. Earlier this month, a separate hacker collective called Lulz Security said it had breached a Sony Pictures site and released vital source codes.

Sony has estimated that the hacker attacks will cost it at least 14 billion yen, or $173 million, in damages, including information technology spending, legal costs, lower sales and free offers to lure back customers.

Mami Imada, a Sony spokeswoman in Tokyo, said she had no information on the arrests and declined to comment.

The police said members of Anonymous made use of a computer program called LOIC to crash Web sites by flooding them with denial of service attacks.

The arrests follow an investigation that was begun last October, when hackers overwhelmed the Spanish Ministry of Culture’s Web site to protest Spanish legislation increasing punishments for illegal downloads.

Among recent attacks, the hackers also brought down the site of the Spanish National Electoral Commission last month before regional and municipal elections.

The movement against the anti-piracy law has been closely linked to the broader youth-led political movement that have occupied Puerta del Sol in Madrid and other city squares since May 15.

These protests have called for a complete overhaul of Spain’s political system — and the laws targeting illegal downloading.

Raphael Minder reported from Madrid. Hiroko Tabuchi contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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