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'Inflection Point': 1 In 3 Data Centers To Use Liquid Cooling By 2026, Report Says

The number of data centers using liquid cooling could jump significantly in the coming months.


More than a third of enterprise data centers are expected to utilize some form of liquid cooling by 2026, according to a survey of IT professionals by technology publication The Register — a significant jump from the number of facilities using the cooling technology today.

The study’s results affirm what many data center professionals have been saying for months: For a growing number of companies, the adoption of more powerful computing equipment is quickly making the use of at least some liquid cooling worth the significant upfront expense, risks and logistical challenges that come with it. 

“There's definitely an inflection point that's been reached,” Dave Meadows, technology director at Stulz USA, a manufacturer of data center cooling systems, said at Bisnow’s DICE Southeast event. “We've been talking about liquid cooling for over 10 years, and we've all been wondering when it’s actually going to get here.”

Indeed, the widespread adoption of liquid cooling across all segments of the data center may have arrived. Of the more than 800 respondents to The Register, 38.3% expect to deploy liquid cooling within the next two years, up from just 20.1% in early 2024.  

Most enterprise data centers won’t be employing liquid cooling in the immediate future, but the data suggests an accelerating adoption curve compared with the infrequent use of the technology today. A separate study by Uptime Institute released in late 2023 reported that only 11% of data centers of any kind utilized liquid cooling at all. 

While the vast majority of data centers are cooled using circulated air, liquid cooling systems pump liquid refrigerant directly to the IT gear, most commonly through chilled plates that sit against processors and other computing equipment or through immersion systems where specially designed processors are completely submerged in chilled fluids. 

Liquid cooling has been available for years, but while experts say it is generally more efficient than traditional air-cooling methods, it is only now gaining widespread adoption in data centers due to increasingly powerful computing equipment that produces more heat than what traditional data center cooling equipment can handle. 

The amount of power data centers use in each rack of equipment, known as density, has been steadily rising for years, but it has exploded with the growth of AI and high-performance computing. 

While the average rack used 8.4 kilowatts of power in 2020, a rack of state-of-the-art equipment used for applications like generative AI can use around 200 KW, experts say.

Liquid cooling is typically associated with the extreme rack densities that come with these high-performance applications, but experts say that the densities of the newest processors for more standard workloads are starting to push above the limits of what can be air-cooled. 

“If we start looking at rack densities, once they approach maybe 40 KW per rack, air is just simply not able to remove that heat in that small area,” Stulz’s Meadows said. “What you end up with is very, very hot servers with low clock rates and all the things that we don't want to take place.”

Few enterprises need liquid cooling at any significant scale today. 87% of centers report average densities below 50 KW per rack, with 46% reporting average densities below 10 KW per rack, according to The Register. 

But while enterprises may trail behind their hyperscale counterparts in the adoption of the highest-density computing equipment, Uptime reports enterprise rack densities continuing to grow at a rapid clip, while the segment also constitutes a growing share of high-performance chip sales. 

Firms are realizing that higher densities are on the doorstep, which means planning for liquid cooling. 

“We're seeing that trend across the board,” said Jacob Wolfe, a manager in the data center division of liquid cooling providercArmstrong Fluid Technology. “It's crazy how much business there's going to be in the next five years.”

Yet even as a growing number of data centers plan to deploy at least some liquid cooling, significant barriers to adoption persist. The complexity of maintenance, enormous implementation costs, a lack of operator experience with these technologies and the risk of leaks and spills are the top concerns among IT professionals, according to The Register. 

And while new data centers are often designed to be compatible with liquid cooling, these systems can’t just be shoehorned into older facilities at any significant scale. As Bisnow has reported previously, large-scale retrofits to accommodate liquid cooling are exceedingly rare. 

Rather, industry insiders anticipate companies initially implementing liquid cooling on a very limited scale only where a strong business case exists for a specific application that requires it. This could be hedge funds using high-performance computing for high-frequency trading or a pharmaceutical company using AI for drug discovery using data that can’t be hosted in the cloud. 

Cosme Garcia, senior director for data center operations at ADP, said he expects to see this kind of liquid-cooled workload peppered throughout data centers in the coming years. 

“You're looking at liquid cooling, but in a very specific, surgical manner, not the entire data center,” Garcia told DICE Southeast attendees. “It’ll be when you're looking at a specific application or a specific business unit that needs it and needs it on-premises, and you’re going to be looking at some small corner of your data center to get that started.”