Dell announces breakthrough in liquid cooling technology

Dell’s new Triton technology, which came out of a special project its ESI [Extreme Scale Infrastructure] group did for eBay, is still far from being a commercially available product. Nevertheless, it represents an important advance in liquid cooling.

Triton rack in lab

A Triton rack in the Dell Labs

ROUND ROCK – Today Dell is announcing that its ESI [Extreme Scale Infrastructure] group has achieved a significant innovation in liquid cooling technology. Codenamed ‘Triton’ and designed for a blade architecture, it allows water to be brought directly into server sleds to cool CPUs without the need for heat exchangers or other intermediary devices, while providing multiply redundant protection against leaks. This produces major TCO savings for customers who need massive processing power.

The ESI group is the most recent incarnation of what originally started out in 2007 as Dell’s Data Center Solutions (DCS) group, which works with Dell’s hyperscale customers to design custom solutions for specific use cases. This particular project was designed for eBay, and led to the creation of an entirely different type of cooling solution than Dell – or for that matter anyone in the market – had done before.

“Typically cold plates are added to CPUs because they are the biggest consumer of cooling, but there are diminished returns from adding them on,” said Austin Shelnutt, the lead thermal architect on Triton. “With this solution, water comes in to each blade node. What’s unique about it is that it brings in the water directly to each server without going through a intermediary heat exchanger. We are the first to bring water directly in.”

Shelnutt said that this results in a very low flow rate, so water isn’t overconsumed. Even more importantly, it translates into major cost savings. Dell concludes that it uses 97 per cent less cooling power than the average air-cooled data centre. Rack mount filtration also lets the water pass through cold plates without risk of disruption of the flow rate for the rest of the rack.

Shelnutt stressed that Triton also should overcome customer concerns about bringing water into the datecentre.

“Datacentres are concerned about bringing water in – for good reason,” he said. “Every single joint in here is tested at extreme pressure. Data centres typically operate at 60-70 PSI. We use braised copper which is designed for 500-1000 PSI, and which is designed to be as leak-resistant as possible. That doesn’t mean a leak won’t occur. But there is a detection system in each sled, wrapped around every single joint. Two things will happen on the detection of a leak. Automatically, the release closes off the water supply, and cuts off all power to the board. If that fails, the water can be closed off at the chassis level. There are redundant failure domains here.”

Shelnutt also noted that the volume of water necessary for cooling is comparatively small – around four ounces in each sled

The Triton technology directly led to the ability to custom-design a much more powerful CPU, because it could be effectively cooled.

“This enables us to support some very high performance CPUs,” Shelnutt said. “In this project, we co-designed one with Intel which delivered a 59 per cent increase in performance over Intel’s highest perfoming CPU. This CPU now exists because of this cooling capability.”

Triton’s technology also allows the Turbo capacity of the Intel CPUs to remain on perpetually.

“It provides enough overcooling that turbo doesn’t make it overheat,” Shelnutt said.

Despite Triton’s innovations, Dell acknowledges that at this stage of its development, this is more about its establishing Dell’s technology leadership in liquid cooling – not in revolutionizing how the vast majority of data centres will be cooled. Triton was designed for one very large hyperscale customer, and that’s the kind of customer who will realize the savings from it. Dell admits that traditional air-cooling will make the most TCO sense for most customers.

Still, while ESI products are not the kind of things that typically wind up in SKUs, and this won’t be an exception, Shelnutt thinks that down the line, this may well change.

“It’s the tip of the spear right now, but we are absolutely looking at opportunities where this could be brought to a broader market,” he said. “The tools are there. The question is whether the market would support us doing so.”