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Researchers developing building-free data centers

News Analysis
Nov 08, 20173 mins
Data CenterGreen IT

A new outdoor server farm concept that uses vats of liquid-cooled computers instead of buildings could be literally located in farmland.

rugged pod
Credit: Horizon Computing

Servers should be stored in vats of cooling, non-conductive oil instead of elaborate, outfitted structures, say engineers who are working on a radical, building-free, data center concept.

French company Horizon Computing is one of the developers behind the project and provides support. It proposes using stacks of 10-gallon barrels filled with Shell DIALA dielectric mineral oil or natural equivalent. Dielectric oil doesn’t have any water in it, so it won’t conduct electricity, but it cools just like water. The computers function as normal and aren’t subject to rust either.

Benefits of RuggedPOD containers

The idea is that common servers are fully submerged in the barrels where they are chilled by the immersion. Expensive humidity control and air conditioning thus become irrelevant, as do buildings.

One could even place the containers, which the researchers call RuggedPODs, out in the middle of a field (rendered image pictured above), observes Simon Sharwood, of The Register, who has reported on the project from the Sydney OpenStack Summit, where the idea is being bandied around.

Horizon’s proposed outdoor cooling boxes have numerous other benefits, it explains on its website: The micro-ATX motherboard-containing, case-like pod can operate in an “extreme environment,” such as outdoors, and in “positive temperatures.”

Costs might be low partly because the barrel is easy to make. Maintenance, too, is simple with an easy-to-operate gasket for the tub. It includes sealed connectors for the external power and network.

Horizon says the RuggedPOD should be able to hold 32- to 48-CPU cores and operate on an 800-Watt power supply.

There is “no need for buildings, no need for humidity control and no need for advanced cooling,” the company says. Virtually the only climate control required is a way to protect the 220-pound, rail-mounted pods from sunlight.

Outdoor data centers maintained by robots

Horizon ultimately envisages hundreds of pods in automated outdoor data centers. They could be in the desert, say, and could be cared for by robots that could be drone, rail system or hoist. But for now, the prototype uses a mix of rail and hoist: Problematic pods are brought to a maintenance zone by a rail line and then hoisted to the work area to be fixed.

“This automated data center has to be fully functional no matter if it rains, snows, if it is windy, hot or cold, and with as little as possible human maintenance,” the research team says on the project website. It sees its outdoor data centers being placed in extreme, non-traditional locations.

Reducing the global energy footprint caused by increasing consumer use of the internet is behind the overall concept, the designers say. Italian open source, public cloud provider Enter Cloud Suite (ECS) is apparently testing the pods. ECS uses OpenStack products for its IaaS.

Intel, Numergy and Western Digital are also involved in the open hardware project.

“This idea is not entirely far-fetched,” Sharwood writes. “Dielectric oils are already used to bathe the innards of transformers and other electrical infrastructure.”


Patrick Nelson was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Patrick Nelson and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.