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Keeping Cool

Does thinking make your brain hot? It certainly does for computers, whose silicon substrates can reach blistering temperatures when working through millions of calculations – and the associated pulses of electrical energy – per second. I remember the first computer I built at home and how disappointingly flaky it was until I realised I’d neglected to fit proper cooling to the CPU and that was with a much slower machine than the computing power available today.

Cooling is also a significant issue for data centres, where large arrays of computers are packed into small rooms. As well as the energy costs of running the machines themselves, there has to be a significant investment in air-conditioning. If the A/C breaks then the result is meltdown – hopefully not literally but systems have to be brought offline until the cooling is fixed. This is why companies are inclined to look at apparently extreme measures to deal with the problem and a recent example would be Microsoft’s Project Natick, recently highlighted on Ars Technica.

They are using water-based cooling but, rather than pump water round the computers, they enclose the computers in a sealed unit and drop that into the sea. It isn’t without its complications (IT support won’t want to be called on to replace a widget!) but I can envisage that this type of system could well be developed over the next few years to find ways to keep our computers running, hopefully with an eye on ecological impacts and benefits.

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