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3M Buckley Innovation Centre chooses Iceotope for liquid-cooled HPC

This article was originally published on Technology.Info.
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When the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre at the University of Huddersfield set out to buy new high-performance computing (HPC) servers earlier this year, innovation and energy-efficiency were its guiding principles.

That makes perfect sense, when its purpose and surroundings are taken into account: a wholly owned subsidiary of the University, the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC) is located in a converted Victorian mill, situated between a canal and a river, and is home to a number of science and technology start-ups, working in fields ranging from sustainable energy to health-care products. As well as office, laboratory and workshop space, 3M BIC also offers these tenants access to the high-technology facilities and services they need to grow their businesses, create jobs and create wealth.

These technology services fall under the remit of technology director Dr Michael Wilson and it was his task to manage the competitive tender process for new dedicated systems that would support complex mathematical modelling on tenants’ behalf.

“Innovation is in the name of the Centre and that’s something we’re always looking for,” he says. A colleague of his, Dr Violeta Holmes of the University’s High Performance Computing Group encouraged him to consider Sheffield-based Iceotope as a potential supplier of the systems.

What Wilson saw impressed him: “I was intrigued,” he says, “especially by the prospect of a system that didn’t require air conditioning to cool it. There was no doubt in my mind that what I was looking at was clearly an innovative system.”

Iceotope’s servers use a non-flammable, dielectric liquid coolant that can safely come into direct contact with electronics, because it doesn’t conduct electricity, and can harvest heat from components by natural convection. A low-energy pump, meanwhile, is all that’s needed to move the coolant around the system. The result is a very energy-efficient system. Plus, at 3M BIC, heat harvested from the servers is subsequently used to heat the building, adding to the cost savings.

The system is also very scalable, says Wilson. “What we’ve got right now is a 64-core system with five nodes (a head node and four working nodes). It’s not a data centre, it’s a small-scale device - but we could easily add to it in future.” That’s important, he adds, because “as the businesses we support grow, so should the services we provide to them.” Plus, he adds, Iceotope is based in Sheffield, which makes it a relatively local start-up company - just like the 3M BIC’s tenants.

The “icing on the cake” for 3M BIC was Iceotope’s use of coolant made by manufacturing giant 3M. Although 3M BIC is not funded by 3M, it was named after former 3M chairman, president and chief executive Sir George Buckley, a University of Huddersfield alumni who continues to enjoy close links with his alma mater. The connection paid off for Wilson and his team: “Once we knew Iceotope were using coolant from 3M, we were able to get on the phone to [3M] and negotiate a very, shall we say, ‘competitive’ price for the coolant we needed.”

Still, Iceotope’s system wasn’t the cheapest server that the 3M BIC considered, but the long-term running costs and scalability will more than make up for that, says Wilson. “We did an extensive analysis of the costs involved, and Iceotope was clearly the best long-term solution.”

The Iceotope servers have been in place and operational since September. “You’d be forgiven for missing the new servers, since they’re virtually silent, but it’s quite remarkable to think what they’re doing,” says Wilson.

“HPC is often isolated from everyday operations, tucked away in a little sound-proof room, but that scenario is far from ideal. Working with Iceotope, we’ve been able to create a wonderfully harmonious working environment at the 3M BIC, where HPC has pride of place,” he says. “We’ve been able to locate powerful computing right next to our users, without detriment to their working procedures. And I’m sure our tenants will get quite a kick from knowing that the servers are even helping to heat the building.”