Cloud provider offers DIY water-cooled servers

Summary:What would you say if you were offered hosting or cloud services by a company which not only built its own datacentres but whose datacentres are water-cooled using its own proprietary cooling systems, and its own servers and storage systems? In other words, a much more vertically integrated provider than the ones you're used to.

What would you say if you were offered hosting or cloud services by a company which not only built its own datacentres but whose datacentres are water-cooled using its own proprietary cooling systems, and its own servers and storage systems? In other words, a much more vertically integrated provider than the ones you're used to.

If you were talking to OVH, France's biggest hosting provider, the company claims you'd be counting the money you'd save, because its costs per square metre can be as little as a fifth of those of more conventional providers. And this is reflected in the prices it charges. Control room

Walk around one of OVH's datacentres, as I did recently, and you would be bewildered by the lack of familiar landmarks. There's no raised floor full of cables, blasting cold air up one side and sucking warm air out the top in the next aisle. Check the water flow indicator (left). Custom high-density racks (right)

There are no familiar badges -- Dell, HP, IBM -- on the servers.

High density servers with water pipes and cables runs above

In fact, it's hard to tell what the servers are, as OVH has built them all itself from standard components, and doesn't bother sticking badges on them apart from their IP addresses (which I have blurred for obvious reasons). And, given the general paranoia in the industry about mixing water and electricity, you might be a bit surprised by the plethora of water pipes running along the top of the rack where the cables also run.

Custom water-cooled heatsinks enable high server density and low power consumption

So why are they doing it this way? One reason is the lower prices because of the higher densities achievable by efficient water cooling but, according to datacentre operations manager Germaine Masse, there's an internal driver too. The company is independently-owned, and can do what it likes: "We like to do it all ourselves, because we are techies and it's one of our strong values."

It was a tough decision as customers at first reacted negatively, said Masse. "We aim to build a community with our customers and this was the first time the customers would not follow us," he said. "But we were sure we were right and stopped talking about it. But now it's understandable mainly because green IT is more popular which no-one was talking about in 2003 [when the company started]. This system gives us lower power consumption. While customers prefer standardisation, thanks to the green lobby our system is more acceptable now."

As well as building its own servers, OVH builds its own storage systems and runs its datacentre at 27 degrees to reduce cooling needs. "We also have no problems with condensation," said Masse. "The water for cooling runs at 20 degrees, and all racks are grounded so we have no static problems, and there's lots of humidity in the air here, so we only have to lower the humidity when it's very cold out."

Generators and chillers

The savings are considerable, according to Masse. "When we had hybrid air and water cooling, it cut the cooling bill by 30 percent but now it's all water, it's down by 50 percent. Over the whole datacentre we have a PUE of 1.1 compared to 1.6 in 2003. We take heat from other components -- memory, hard disks and chipsets, as well as the CPU. A third party builds our heatsinks for us in Poland."

Another consequence of such self-reliance, Masse reckons, is that he can offer a 100 percent uptime SLA on the storage and network elements, and four nines for servers. This is the platform on which the company bases its upcoming launch of a cloud service in the UK, for which it plans to be "much cheaper than Amazon with no bandwidth or IO charges," Masse said. "We want to provide a competitive product to EC2 with a more comprehensible bill at the end of the month."

Given that Amazon's charges start at $23 a year for its micro server offerings, that's a tough target to beat. But since the company has so much control over its hardware costs, it seems to be in a good position to deliver on that promise.

Image credits: Manek Dubash

Topics: Networking

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Editor, journalist, analyst, presenter and blogger. As well as blogging and writing news & features here on ZDNet, I work as a cloud analyst with STL Partners, and write for a number of other news and feature sites. I also provide research and analysis services, video and audio production, white papers, event photography, voiceo... Full Bio

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