IBM cools its bricks

IBM has found a way to keep its next-generation storage brick architecture cool by pumping water through it, but will users welcome the idea of water coursing through their data centers?

On a recent trip to IBM's hilltop Almaden Research Center (ARC) overlooking Silicon Valley, the company unveiled, in more detail, its plans for its foray into highly modular storage systems dubbed "collective intelligent bricks," also referred to as "ice cubes."

Ironically, IBM admits that this new architecture isn't as "cool" as it could be. Heat is very much an issue with the bricks stacked in three-dimensional arrangements. The bricks are fully self-contained modules that can work independently or in conjunction with other bricks. Each brick has its own processor and memory, Linux operating system, 10 Gbit Ethernet network interfaces and up to a dozen disk drives.

Because any single brick could have other bricks flush against it on all sides, conventional air cooling systems wouldn't suffice. Robert Garner, a research staff member and intelligent bricks co-designer, and his teammates devised a method of cooling the bricks with water, although they admit that selling the idea of having water course through equipment in a data center may be a bit of an uphill battle.

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According to Garner, the water can come from the cooling systems already in place in most raised-floor environments. Those systems typically use water to cool the air that gets pumped into and around computer room equipment. Garner says that IBM's brick systems can tap into that existing source and, using a standard heat exchanger unit, pump the water through tubes that rise from the brick's base unit and travel through each of the stacked bricks. The working prototype in the lab uses this water-cooling system, with no reported heat-related problems to date. Garner does concede, however, that air-cooled versions of the storage array may also be likely.

IBM declined to speculate how long it might take intelligent bricks to become a real product, but just as many other ARC research projects have ultimately emerged in one form or another as real storage products, it's likely that at least some of the concepts employed in the intelligent bricks prototype will show up in future IBM products. The hardware part of the bricks concept doesn't seem to offer insurmountable problems as most of it can be built using commodity parts. Developing the software to control the storage modules with the agility to reconfigure them as necessary may require a more concerted effort.

The days' eight speakers all provided examples of how ARC research has spawned key IBM storage products, such as the SAN Files System, Storage Volume Controller and Adaptive Replacement Caching, which is used in IBM's latest DS6000 and DS8000 arrays to speed up caching operations.

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