How to Build a Supercomputer on the Cheap

A bank of cooling fans are seen at Facebook Inc.'s data storage center near the Arctic Circle in Lulea, Sweden, on June 12 Photograph by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Have $300 million to spare? You can do something pretty awesome with all that scratch, like build a new data center in the Arctic Circle. That’s what Facebook did with its hundreds of millions and ended up with the world’s most efficient computing center. Yay.

The good news for computing megalomaniacs on a budget is that there are some new ways to build massive, energy-efficient data centers without going to the same polar trouble. You can, for example, turn to Asetek, a startup that has pioneered a line of liquid cooling adapters that can transform an existing data center from a power hog into something a bit greener.

Asetek is the brainchild of André Eriksen, a self-described speed freak (in the good way) from Denmark. About 15 years ago, Eriksen spent his spare time tweaking computers to make them run faster. The key to this kind of thing is cooling the main processor so it can perform more and more calculations without overheating—a practice known as overclocking. “I built a compressor into the computer that could freeze the chip down to minus 40 degrees [Celsius] and run the whole thing at about twice its normal speed,” Eriksen says. Quite often, hardcore gamers do this to push their systems to the limit, but Eriksen just did it because he likes things that go fast. “I spent all my money on hardware to see if I could benchmark software running faster than anyone else,” he says. (Who hasn’t done this?)

Soon enough, his hobby started to look like a business. In 2003, Eriksen decided to start selling a cooling kit that people could install in their PCs to improve their performance. “It’s kind of weird to found your own company in Denmark,” he says. “With the social welfare system, people wonder why you would create more work for yourself. But that’s exactly what I did.”

Asetek began mass producing the compressor-based cooling systems under the VapoChill brand. Then the company moved to produce a liquid cooling adapter. Customers needed to attach a hockey puck-like device to the motherboard inside their PC and attach a radiator to the back of the computer case. It’s not something a casual PC user would do, but gamers loved it, and so did some businesses with engineers who pushed their computers to the max. Asetek has sold 1.5 million of these units and now has reseller deals in place with the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

Now Eriksen wants to conquer the server market. Asetek has built a new type of liquid cooling adapter that can be fitted onto existing servers. The big win here is that the adapters cool the servers more efficiently than the air conditioning that’s typically used. That means a customer can shut down the air conditioning systems and run a more efficient, greener data center, saving money in the process. It can take a couple of days to outfit all of the servers in a large data center with the Asetek gear, and there is additional hardware to buy. “But we promise that within the first year of operation, you will have made your money back from the energy savings,” Eriksen says.

At the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado, a large data center retrofitted with the Asetek liquid cooling systems has become one of the most efficient computing facilities on the planet. Data centers are often measured by a metric known as PUE, or power usage effectiveness, which provides a ratio for how much energy gets spent on power and cooling at a facility vs. computing. A typical score runs between 2.0 and 3.0, while such companies as Facebook and Google that push the efficiency envelope strive to get down to 1.06 or so. The NREL data have notched a 1.06 with the Asetek products. “Facebook and Google are showing similar PUEs, but they’re doing massive investments in their data centers to get those scores and building the facilities at the ends of the earth,” Eriksen says. “We can retrofit a data center in Arizona or wherever and show the same score.”

Liquid cooling in data centers has come and gone over the years. Historically, it has required quite expensive new hardware, and customers have recoiled from the notion of having water or any liquid near their precious computers. Eriksen argues that Asetek’s adapters are simpler, safer, and less expensive than these past products.

The big boys seems to want to take part in the liquid cooling revival, too. Or at least HP does. It helped NREL build a new data center that’s aimed at hard-core computing jobs and that uses a previously top secret liquid-cooled system built by HP. That new center has hit a PUE score of 1.06 as well. “We even take the waste heat from the computers and use it to heat the data center building and melt the snow in the parking lots and on the sidewalks,” says Paul Santeler, a vice-president at HP. HP expects to begin selling its liquid cooling system soon.

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