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IBM's cool zero-emission data centre idea

Not a whiff of CO2 - but still whiffs of hype

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IBM says it is working towards the introduction of technology to enable zero-emission data centres, which will give out not a single whiff of CO2.

The claims were made by Bruno Michel of IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory at LISA '09, the Large Installation System Administration Conference, which happened to be in Zurich.

Michel's presentation was entitled 'Towards Zero-Emission Datacenters through Direct Re-use of Waste Heat' and concentrated on chip stacking and improved water-cooling.

It discussed carbon footprint reduction with cooling efficiency increases and community heating using heat recovered from an operating data centre.

There was the usual global warming introduction and assertions that IT has to move from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. As ever, a sub-text was cost-reduction.

Water-cooling is a better way to transfer heat from data centre kit - from thermal conduction chip modules to racks - than air cooling. IBM is working on packaging its chips in better thermal conduction modules. The presentation included gee-whiz tech stuff, like "Hierarchical Nested Channel (HNC) [which] creates thinner bond lines with higher conductivity materials using low assembly forces... [and] Fluid-shear driven self-assembly."

That's all terrific, but nothing was said about packaging x86 chips inside water-cooled cases with fluid-shear driven self-assembly. Since the bulk of data centre server chips these days are x86 ones, that's a massive hole in IBM's idea of zero-emission data centres.

Michel then began to sound like Scotty on the Starship Enterprise bridge, as he talked of blade-level and rack-level liquid cooling and discussed "Improved phonon coupling at hydrophilic interfaces" and "Phonon tunnelling in superlattice structures". He went on to talk about Slip Flow Induced Pressure Drop Reduction and showed a diagram of a Three-phase Cassi-state.

This went on for some time.

A return to everyday normality was hinted at with a slide entitled "Limits of Traditional Back-Side Heat Removal" but thoughts of cooling-efficient trousers were soon dashed as he went on to discuss an "Interlayer cooled chip stack".

Eventually he came back down to Earth and asserted that high-performance chip-level cooling improves energy efficiency and reduces carbon emission, because you could then cool data centres using external air and dispense with chillers. In fact, you could remove heat so effectively that the data centre could be a heat source for local buildings in cool and cold climates.

Okay, but you still need power to run the data centre kit even if you don't need power to run chillers. How do the IBM researchers propose we get out of that trap?

They are saying that, as a data centre could heat surrounding buildings, they would no longer need heating from gas-fired central heating or other CO2-emitting sources and the net effect would be a zero-emission data centre.

This is a kludge, though. Firstly, it only works in cold climates where buildings need heating. Secondly the data centre still needs power to run and, unless it comes from nuclear or renewable generating sources, it's still indirectly causing CO2 to be emitted, exactly as it does today but to a lower degree. Big Blue is not such a big greeny as it would like us to believe. ®

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