New super-computer with innovative eco-friendly cooling system

Posted by mjs76 at Jul 22, 2010 04:10 PM |
To the likes of Hal, Tim, Orac, Mr Smith* and other great computers, please welcome Alice, the latest recruit at the University of Leicester.

Actually that’s ALICE, the Advanced Leicester Information and Computational Environment. Housed in our Physics Building but available to all staff, postdocs and research postgrads, ALICE has ten times the number-crunching power of our previous facility. But an innovative cooling system makes her one of the most energy-efficient and ‘green’ computers of this size and type.

Before the official launch this week, ALICE was put through her paces on some trial projects. Justin Read from our Department of Physics and Astronomy used about half of ALICE for one month to create an animated model of the eventual, inevitable collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy (don’t worry – it’s still over four billion years away). Using the current world’s fastest desktop, this would have taken 85 years – which is a bit long, even for a PhD.

Of course, all this extra computing power comes at an energy cost: 150kw as opposed to just 75kw for the old system. But all those glowing valves and whirring magnetic reels** create heat and any big computer needs a cooling system. Our previous facility used 105kw of power to cool the room, while ALICE’s state-of-the-art water-cooling system uses just 30kw. You don’t need a super-computer to work out that this means the total energy usage has remained constant at 180kw while the computing power has increased massively.

Almost half of the £2.2 million pounds spent on ALICE went on the room which has been designed so that the hot air from the machine and the cold air from the cooling system don’t mix. This is much more efficient than having a warm mixture of the two and it also means that ALICE can be much more compact than she otherwise would be, cramming 20kw into each rack instead of the 5kw per rack that traditional computer cooling systems are limited to.

The thermal energy is carried away using a system of water pipes, not unlike the back of your fridge, but the water is about 18 degrees instead of the more usual 12-13 degrees. Consequently, any time that the outside ambient temperature is less than 18 degrees (which is most of the time in Leicester) the heat can simply be dissipated from radiators on the roof of the building.

All of this will save the University about £130,000 a year and about 800 tonnes of carbon. The computers were supplied by Hewlett Packard and the cooling system, which is called Ecofris and has never before been used in a university, was supplied by Keysource Ltd.

* 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tomorrow People, Blake’s 7, The Sarah Jane Adventures - give yourself one point for each

** Sadly, ALICE does not actually have valves or big, revolving reels of magnetic tape. But she does have a lot of flashing lights and some bundles of coloured wires.