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New Egenera blades get liquid cooling

Egenera's new BladeFrame EX can be purchased with a liquid cooling system that drastically reduces heat output. Photos: Liquid-cooled server

Blade server pioneer Egenera plans to announce on Tuesday its third-generation product, the BladeFrame EX, along with a partnership to keep the systems cool.

The BladeFrame EX, like its predecessors, is a rack with as many as 24 individual blade servers and a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Susan Davis, vice president of marketing and product management. The new system doubles the number of gigabit Ethernet ports to 16, and its faster internal communications backplane will permit later upgrades to 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet and 4Gbps Fibre Channel storage networks.

Egenera's BladeFrame EX

A bigger difference is the close integration of cooling technology from Liebert, a subsidiary of Emerson Network Power. Liebert has been selling cooling systems that are mounted above computing systems in data centers, but with the Egenera deal, the company's cooling systems would be mounted directly to the back of the BladeFrame.

The joint product, called CoolFrame, adds $300 to $400 per blade to the Bladeframe's price to include the cost of both the pump that transports the cooling fluid and Liebert's installation.

Liquid cooling, a rarity in recent years, is making a comeback as processors get ever hotter and more densely packed. It's a problem for extreme gaming PCs, but it's an even bigger problem for data centers with hundreds of computers; because of heat issues, Google predicts electricity could soon cost more than computer hardware.

Companies are responding. offers liquid cooling on its latest supercomputers, and IBM added a similar option in 2005 called the eServer Rear Door Heat Exchanger.

A rack packed with servers today can consume about 20,000 watts of power and throw off a correspondingly large amount of waste heat, said Dan Busby, director of product design for Egenera. Using the Liebert cooling, the waste heat is only the equivalent of a rack drawing 1,500 watts, he said.

Egenera is the first company with a tight partnership with Liebert, but others are in discussion, said Lennert Stahl, Liebert's senior product manager. "We are working with other companies as well on cooling solutions," Stahl said.

Liebert's first-generation liquid cooling products, introduced in 2000, used water, but the current systems and the Egenera add-on use a coolant called R134a, Stahl said. A leak in the system produces only gas, not a liquid, he said.

Liquid cooling systems don't remove overheating problems, but they can transfer the cooling process to a large-scale, high-capacity air conditioning system.

Cooling is at the top of the agenda for chipmakers. The mantra of "performance per watt" is expected to be a major theme at the Intel Developer Forum this February, and its rival Opteron has been boasting about its processors' lower power requirements.

Most of Egenera's systems use Intel's Xeon processors, but AMD's Opteron is gaining in popularity among the company's customers. "We first introduced Opteron at end of March. Opteron at this point is up to about 30 percent of what we're shipping," she said. "We've seen a high rate of adoption."

IBM says its , not mainstream business applications. But Davis has a different view of the work that customers put on Xeon and Opteron machines.

"They're both pretty similar," she said. "A lot of people are running database applications, and Opteron seems especially well suited to that."

Egenera has committed to ship BladeFrame models using , but those won't begin shipping until later in the first half of 2006, Davis said. Initial models will use the presently shipping "Madison" model of Itanium, not the forthcoming dual-core Montecito version shipping later this year.