Lenovo announces hybrid liquid-cooling system: Neptune

Lenovo's Neptune includes a mix of cooling technologies: direct-to-node liquid cooling, rear door heat exchangers, and hybrid cooling that mixes air and liquid.

Lenovo jumps on the liquid cooling bandwagon with Neptune
Hans Andersen (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Water cooling for enterprise servers is slowly creeping in from the fringes to the mainstream of data center use as vendors and end users alike realize the limitations of air cooling. With increased compute density, fans just don’t cut it anymore, and water cooling is far more efficient.

Several vendors have adapted their cabinets to accommodate water-cooling systems, and now Lenovo is the latest to get religion on the subject with Neptune, a series of technologies for the data center. The company announced the new system at the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) in Frankfurt, Germany.

Neptune is a three-pronged approach, borrowed from the legend of the Roman god of the seas Neptune, who wields a three-pointed spear. It offers direct-to-node liquid cooling, rear door heat exchangers, and hybrid cooling that mixes air and liquid, all of which is documented in a lighthearted blog post by the company.

All of these are managed by Lenovo’s Energy Aware Runtime (EAR) software, which optimizes systems for energy efficiency and performance from the component level to the chassis.

Lenovo has a history with water-cooled systems

This isn’t new territory for Lenovo. Back in 2012 when it was still IBM’s System x server division, it installed the first water-cooled x86 cluster at Leibniz-Rechenzentrum (LRZ), a supercomputer facility in Munich, Germany. That system helped LRZ reduce electrical consumption by up to 40 percent. Since then, Lenovo has installed over 24,000 liquid-cooled nodes at customer sites.

Lenovo is making the case that enterprises can cut their electric bills by shifting from air to much cheaper water cooling and that the initial investment isn’t pricey at all. Water cooling has something of a myth that it is much more expensive than air cooling, but Lenovo says that in most cases, liquid cooling is only 2 percent more expensive than air cooling.

One reason is that water-cooling systems have cut out an expensive element. Earlier water-cooling systems would route hot water away from the server to a chiller, which cooled the water down considerably. The chiller, though, was the expensive part and used a lot of power.

Now, many water cooling systems use what is called warm water cooling, meaning they simply let physics do the job of thermal dissipation rather than spending the money and power on a chiller. As the water runs through the pipes, it naturally cools — just not as much as a chiller would do. But it’s still more than enough.

The direct to node component is what it sounds like: a heat sink attached to the CPU that brings in cool water, absorbs the heat, and routes the warm water away. The rear door heat exchanger is the second part, a big car radiator for the cabinet. It serves to cool the back of the system and thus avoids the hot air ventilation out of the back of a cabinet in the hot aisle/cold aisle configuration. The hybrid solution is said to be coming in the near future.

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