IT Strategy

Liquid cooling set for rapid growth in data centers, survey finds—but from a tiny baseline

Nearly four in 10 (38.3%) IT professionals expect some of their equipment will rely on direct-to-chip or immersion cooling within two years, according to a The Register survey.
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· 3 min read

Liquid cooling is poised to break out of niche status in the data center within the next few years, according to a The Register survey of IT pros.

While just 20.1% of 812 survey respondents reported using some form of liquid cooling in early 2024, the number of those who expect to by 2026 is nearly double, at 38.3%.

Respondents viewed liquid cooling as helpful for high-performance computing and dense server configurations (64.4% and 60.6%, respectively), with only 46.2% saying it was beneficial for AI workloads.

Liquid cooling is much more efficient than air cooling, albeit more expensive. But introducing liquids to an IT environment comes with inherent, if manageable, risks. As The Register noted, liquid cooling has largely been used in supercomputing cabinets to date, although the most powerful new AI chipsets already require it as well.

Rolf Brink, founder and CEO of cooling advisory Promersion, told IT Brew that liquid cooling is in such limited enterprise use today that doubling its implementation would be “fairly meaningless.” More important, he said, is that new hardware requirements will force rapid adoption.

“One of the things that is impossible to ignore is that new platforms that utilize high-density chips, they’re gonna be pre-equipped with cold plates very soon if not already,” Brink said. “Every data center will be dealing with liquid cooling in some form or another.”

Air cooling is “just no longer feasible,” Brink added. “If you look at the chips that are coming out now, with 1.2 kilowatt GPUs from Nvidia—sorry man, that’s just not going to be air cooling. If you do, it’s going to be wildly inefficient.”

Of the almost 40% of survey respondents who did anticipate using liquid cooling by 2026, the majority said they would be relying on direct-to-chip (DTC, or cold plate) technology. That’s the simplest method of liquid cooling: a closed system which replaces heat sinks with metal plates chilled by pumped water or coolants. Around 16% of all respondents said their liquid cooling would rely entirely on DTC by 2026.

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A further 7% said they would rely on a fifty-fifty mix of DTC and immersion cooling, a more complicated method in which entire systems are submerged in liquids with high thermal but very low electrical conductivity. Just 6.5% said they would only be using immersion.

“It’s not really a matter of whether immersion is the future or cold plate is the future,” Brink told IT Brew. “Water is going to be penetrating every corner of the data room eventually.”

Still, The Register reported 87% of respondents had rack densities of 50 kilowatts or lower—a likely explanation for why over 60% anticipated sticking with air cooling. Around one-half of the IT experts surveyed also reported concerns that liquid cooling might be difficult to maintain, cost too much to implement, or require expertise their organizations don’t have, while roughly four out of 10 had concerns about spills.

While cost is mostly a perception issue, according to Brink, concerns about servicing challenges are “absolutely justified.”

“If you have a KPI that states, ‘You need to be able to switch out a memory module within 30 seconds,’ obviously that’s not going to happen in an immersion tank,” Brink told IT Brew. But there are other advantages, like longer-lasting equipment and power savings.

“If you save 15% of power just by deploying immersion, you do get a 15% extra envelope for more IT equipment,” he added.

Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to cloud computing, IT Brew covers the latest trends shaping business tech in our 4x weekly newsletter, virtual events with industry experts, and digital guides.