Welcome to IBM’s Supercomputer Waterworld of the Future

Computers are just too damned hot. It's becoming a real problem. Big internet companies like Facebook have taken Intel to task over the issue and -- sensing a real opportunity -- other companies have started to build new systems using the same kinds of low-power processors you'll find in your mobile phone. In fact, 2013 is likely to be the year that we get an inkling of how far these new ARM systems are going to push old-school chipmakers like Intel and AMD. But over in Poughkeepsie, NY, IBM is studying these server power problems. And you know what? It's seen it all before. IBM started building water cooling into its System 360 computers back in the early 1960s. Fifteen years later, IBM built most of its chips using a transistor technology, called bipolar, that was being stretched to its limits. Chips were getting too hot, and IBM developed new kinds of water radiators to cool them down. Big Blue's designs were so accomplished that one of them -- a cooling unit that used dozens of spring-powered pistons to pump water off of the chip -- was featured on the July 1983 cover of Scientific American. A new generation of transistors -- they're called Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor, or CMOS -- came in during the early 1990s and saved the day. Much more power-efficient than their bipolar predecessors, they ushered in an era of air-cooled servers. IBM stopped building water-cooled systems in 1995. But it's building them again and for many, the air-cooled era may be coming to an end, says Roger Schmidt, the IBM Fellow in charge of the company's energy efficiency research. In 2005, IBM took a small step back into water cooling -- piping out a heat exchanger that fits onto the back of a server rack. And now the company is looking at new ways of water-cooling its chips, just like back in the 80s. The water-cooling proposition often comes as a bit of a shock, except to the old-timers who remember the 70s and 80s. "A lot of the people out there who run data centers aren't into water because they've grown up in the CMOS era," Schmidt says. "The guys that were never in water and were just air-cooling CMOS, they say, 'Keep that away from me.'"


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