Microsoft Is Cooling a Data Center With Boiling Fluids

The company's immersion cooling tank enables servers to operate continuously without overheating.
Chris Young
Microsoft's immersion cooling tankMicrosoft

Microsoft made waves in 2018 when it submerged a data center in the North Sea as part of its Project Natick, which showed a failure rate of 1/8th that of its land centers.

Now, Microsoft is showing off a two-phase liquid cooling solution that it says enables even greater server densities, the company explains in a release.

Communications sent between Microsoft employees are literally making liquid boil inside a steel holding tank packed with computer servers at the data center at the center of the trial, located at Quincy, Washington.

Unlike water, however, the non-conductive cooling fluid inside the tank is harmless to electronics equipment and is engineered to boil at 122°F (50°C), 90 degrees lower in Fahrenheit than the boiling point of water.

Microsoft hasn't identified the fluid used, though it does explain how it works: the heat from the working servers boils the fluid, creating vapor that carries heat away from the electronics — this allows them to operate continuously without risk of overheating.

Greater computing flexibility for 'burst-y' workloads

The vapor rises to a cooled condenser in the tank's lid, which causes the vapor to change back to liquid and rain back down onto the submerged servers, creating a closed-loop cooling system.

"We are the first cloud provider that is running two-phase immersion cooling in a production environment," says Husam Alissa, a principal hardware engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development in Redmond, Washington.

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Microsoft's press release highlights the fact that this type of immersion cooling can reduce server power consumption by 5-15 percent, the lack of humidity and oxygen allowing for superior reliability.

Microsoft says that the shift to two-phase liquid immersion cooling enables greater flexibility for managing cloud resources and dealing with spikes in data center computing demand. This is due to the fact that these servers can be overclocked without the risk of overheating.

"For instance, we know that with Teams when you get to 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock, there is a huge spike because people are joining meetings at the same time," Marcus Fontoura corporate vice president at Microsoft explains. "Immersion cooling gives us more flexibility to deal with these burst-y workloads."

Over the next several months, Microsoft will continue to run tests on its immersion cooling data center, which it says could be used for applications such as a driverless car-enabling 5G cellular tower in the future.

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