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IBM unveils supercomputer cooled by hot water


July 10, 2010

Prof. Ralph Eichler, President, ETH Zurich and Dr. John Kelly, Senior Vice President IBM Research, unveil for the first time, Aquasar, a first-of-a-kind, warm-water cooled supercomputer

Prof. Ralph Eichler, President, ETH Zurich and Dr. John Kelly, Senior Vice President IBM Research, unveil for the first time, Aquasar, a first-of-a-kind, warm-water cooled supercomputer

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IBM has announced that its first-of-a-kind hot water-cooled supercomputer has been installed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich). Named the Aquasar, the system not only consumes up to 40 per cent less energy than an air-cooled machine but the direct utilization of waste heat in the building's heating system translates to an 85 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions.

During warm summer months, one of the best places to work is in the server room of a networked office building or data center that uses cool air to prevent processor overheating. Such systems though are not too energy efficient so IBM started on a novel approach to cooling servers about a year ago as part of an initiative to create new technologies to solve business problems. Using warm water as a coolant might seem counter intuitive but the results speak for themselves.

Installed at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich, an IBM BladeCenter Cluster is comprised of three IBM BladeCenter H chassis with a total of 33 IBM BladeCenter QS22 servers (two IBM PowerXCell 8i Processors each) and nine IBM BladeCenter HS22 servers (two Intel Nehalem EP Processors each). Of those, one chassis is air-cooled for direct comparison and contains 11 QS22 servers and three HS22 servers. The rest have micro-channel liquid coolers attached directly to processors and some components within the server which are then cooled with warm water (up to 60C).

The warm water allows the processors to function well below the maximum allowed operating temperature and the coolant removes heat from the processor "4,000 times more efficiently than air" and in doing so also offers a higher-grade heat at the output, which is passed on to the building's heating system.

"With Aquasar, we make an important contribution to the development of sustainable high performance computers and computer system," said ETH Zurich's Professor Dimos Poulikakos. "In the future it will be important to measure how efficiently a computer is per watt and per gram of equivalent CO2 production."

In high performance LINPACK benchmark testing the Aquasar achieved a performance of six teraflops and had an energy efficiency of about 450 megaflops per watt, whilst also giving back some nine kilowatts of thermal power to the building's heating system.

The next step in the three year Aquasar research program is to focus on the performance and characteristics of the cooling system in order to optimize it further.

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag. All articles by Paul Ridden

Why does it need to be warm? or is it warm as a consequence of the heating? and wouldnt mixing a very conductive material in the water improve the effect?

João Martins

@Joao Afonso Martins: Methinks it doesn\'t have to be warm, but the water coming out from the heating system leaves the water warm. Also, mixing conductive material is probably not going to work. I\'m pretty sure the water needs to be distilled to prevent mineral deposits from forming inside the microchannels on the chips.

IBM has been showing off this tech for a few years now. It\'s nice to finally see it put to work. It has always bothered me that computers generate so much heat while we burn more energy to turn fans so that we can just dump that heat into the room. People will look back on fan-cooled computers in 20 years and shake their heads in amazement how inefficient we were. Maybe 30 years...


For what it\'s worth, enthusiasts have been liquid-cooling computers for over a decade. Heck, the computer systems on cold-war era subs/ships had liquid cooling going for them. I wonder if the \"new\" part is the high tempatures of the cooling liquid, the dispersal method for the waste heat, or the fact that it is a supercomputer? Maybe the liquid used, however enthusists have used everything from mineral oil to water, even various coolant mixes. I almost went down this path myself but didn\'t want to spend the cash.


Regarding, \"People will look back on fan-cooled computers in 20 years and shake their heads in amazement how inefficient we were. Maybe 30 years...\"

In 20 or 30 years we probably won\'t have any sort of computer as we know it now. Maybe they will centralized in off-sight locations for a subscription fee and we access them via an internet connection. Or, maybe so small and efficient that no heat will be generated at all. Who knows?! But that is if we can survive the world\'s evils.


IBM isn\'t pioneering water cooling. They are going back to it!! IBM discontinued water cooling after the S/390 9021 commercial processing line in the early 1990s when Lou Gerstner changed the manufacturing direction to the much lower current CMOS air-cooled processors. It was only a matter of time before engineers were able to produce much higher density circuits thus requiring the efficiently of water cooling again.


Interesting innovated concept but i still don\'t understand how warm water would help instead of simply water?


supercopmuter with ONLY 6TFLOPs ? they are kidding, right? soon (2? max 4 years) our standard pc will have as much as 6 TFLOPs (now we have ~TFLOP). Slowest supercomputers have at least 30TFLOPs.

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