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China's drive for efficient datacenters has made liquid cooling mainstream

Inspur says server shoppers can't wait to chill out

Analysis Regulations aimed at improving energy efficiency of Chinese datacenters are driving rapid adoption of liquid cooling tech, in the Middle Kingdom at least, according to manufacturing giant Inspur.

“The request for liquid cooling has been crazy,” Inspur Systems VP of Technical Operations Alan Chang told The Register. “A couple years ago I had to sell liquid cooling; this year they have been inquiring for liquid cooling.”

Chang attributes the sudden interest in liquid cooling to regulations introduced last year by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which aim to improve the power efficiency of domestic datacenters.

China needs more efficient datacenters because the MIIT predicts the country's national compute fleet will grow at 20 percent a year, with datacenters just one industry competing for the nation's expanding energy output.

Beijing's policymakers therefore set a national power utilization efficiency (PUE) target of 1.3 for most datacenters. The metric describes how much of the power used by datacenters actually goes toward compute, storage, or networking equipment. The closer the PUE is to 1.0, the more efficient the facility. But once thermal management, lighting, and other systems are taken into considerations, it's not uncommon for PUEs to climb to 1.5 or more, especially in warmer climates.

According Dell'Oro analyst Lucas Beran, China's targets aren't particularly aggressive, but the location and scale of the datacenter can have a major impact on just how easier they are to hit. For example, a datacenter operating in a climate that remains relatively cold or cool all year round will have a far easier time hitting a low PUE than one operating in a hotter climate.

“For a legacy enterprise that could be a little more difficult for them to accomplish because it probably requires them to invest in datacenter physical infrastructure,” he said.

Which is one reason China has ordered the construction of massive datacenters in its cool East, and intends to migrate five million racks full of kit to those facilities.

According to Inspur's Chang, China's PUE targets have driven a great deal of interest in the company's liquid-cooled systems, which are perceived as “low hanging fruit” for those looking to improve datacenter efficiency. The view that liquid cooling can deliver quick improvements has gone mainstream, he added, with most inquiries coming from customers beyond use cases like high-performance computing that have long understood the cooling tech.

According to Beran, thermal management can account for as much as 40 percent of a datacenter’s power consumption, with much of that attributable to air conditioning units. Using liquid cooling at scale means datacenter operators can substantially reduce the amount of power used by aircon and other powered thermal management systems.

A call for standardization, not regulation

While interest in liquid cooling has increased dramatically in China in the wake of regulations in that nation, Beran doesn’t believe US climate policy needs to mimic Beijing's shakeup in order for America to develop the same level of interest in liquid cooling.

That is to say, liquid cooling could go mainstream in America albeit for other reasons. The US and China view regulation differently, he said, adding that competition and a desire to maintain margins is likely to achieve the same growth in adoption in the United States.

“The main driver of liquid cooling adoption [in the US] is going to be the lower operating expenditures and potentially even the lower capex of some of that infrastructure,” Beran said.

While Beran doesn’t believe regulation is necessary to convince datacenter operators to adopt liquid cooling, he argues there’s still room for standardization, particularly where to concerns the metrics used to quantify the effectiveness of the systems towards meeting sustainability goals.

PUE, he explains, is just one metric for measuring datacenter efficiency, and doesn’t take into account all of the factors at play. Without standardization, Beran said, a datacenter could claim an incredibly low PUE by sacrificing their water usage effectiveness. “You can just use a heck of a lot of water to crank your PUE down,” he said. “Is that more sustainable? What's the trade off between the water and electricity there?

“Let’s get everybody on a level playing field and be transparent about where we're at today, so we can set some goals and actually measure our progress towards achieving those goals.”

Despite these obstacles, Beran says interest in liquid cooling tech is gaining momentum. According to his latest estimate, liquid cooling tech is on track to reach 19 percent of the datacenter thermal management market by 2026.

“Everybody was talking about liquid cooling,” during October’s Open Compute Project Summit, Beran said, adding that it wasn’t just the liquid cooling vendors making noise, it was OEMs and component vendors talking up liquid-cooled systems and components.

Recent examples of enthusiasm for the tech include Nvidia's May 2022 spring announcement of wider availability for liquid-cooled GPUs, while in the same month Intel laid out a $700 million plan to build a “megalab"to research and develop liquid and immersion cooling tech". ®

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