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Immersion cooling to offset data centers’ massive power demands gains a big booster in Microsoft

By Jonathan Shieber

LiquidStack does it. So does Submer. They’re both dropping servers carrying sensitive data into goop in an effort to save the planet. Now they’re joined by one of the biggest tech companies in the world in their efforts to improve the energy efficiency of data centers, because Microsoft is getting into the liquid-immersion cooling market.

Microsoft is using a liquid it developed in-house that’s engineered to boil at 122 degrees Fahrenheit (lower than the boiling point of water) to act as a heat sink, reducing the temperature inside the servers so they can operate at full power without any risks from overheating.

The vapor from the boiling fluid is converted back into a liquid through contact with a cooled condenser in the lid of the tank that stores the servers.

“We are the first cloud provider that is running two-phase immersion cooling in a production environment,” said Husam Alissa, a principal hardware engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development in Redmond, Washington, in a statement on the company’s internal blog. 

While that claim may be true, liquid cooling is a well-known approach to dealing with moving heat around to keep systems working. Cars use liquid cooling to keep their motors humming as they head out on the highway.

As technology companies confront the physical limits of Moore’s Law, the demand for faster, higher performance processors mean designing new architectures that can handle more power, the company wrote in a blog post. Power flowing through central processing units has increased from 150 watts to more than 300 watts per chip and the GPUs responsible for much of Bitcoin mining, artificial intelligence applications and high end graphics each consume more than 700 watts per chip.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft isn’t the first tech company to apply liquid cooling to data centers and the distinction that the company uses of being the first “cloud provider” is doing a lot of work. That’s because bitcoin mining operations have been using the tech for years. Indeed, LiquidStack was spun out from a bitcoin miner to commercialize its liquid immersion cooling tech and bring it to the masses.

“Air cooling is not enough”

More power flowing through the processors means hotter chips, which means the need for better cooling or the chips will malfunction.

“Air cooling is not enough,” said Christian Belady, vice president of Microsoft’s datacenter advanced development group in Redmond, in an interview for the company’s internal blog. “That’s what’s driving us to immersion cooling, where we can directly boil off the surfaces of the chip.”

For Belady, the use of liquid cooling technology brings the density and compression of Moore’s Law up to the datacenter level

The results, from an energy consumption perspective, are impressive. The company found that using two-phase immersion cooling reduced power consumption for a server by anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent (every little bit helps).

Microsoft investigated liquid immersion as a cooling solution for high performance computing applications such as AI. Among other things, the investigation revealed that two-phase immersion cooling reduced power consumption for any given server by 5% to 15%. 

Meanwhile, companies like Submer claim they reduce energy consumption by 50%, water use by 99%, and take up 85% less space.

For cloud computing companies, the ability to keep these servers up and running even during spikes in demand, when they’d consume even more power, adds flexibility and ensures uptime even when servers are overtaxed, according to Microsoft.

“[We] know that with Teams when you get to 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock, there is a huge spike because people are joining meetings at the same time,” Marcus Fontoura, a vice president on Microsoft’s Azure team, said on the company’s internal blog. “Immersion cooling gives us more flexibility to deal with these burst-y workloads.”

At this point, data centers are a critical component of the internet infrastructure that much of the world relies on for… well… pretty much every tech-enabled service. That reliance however has come at a significant environmental cost.

“Data centers power human advancement. Their role as a core infrastructure has become more apparent than ever and emerging technologies such as AI and IoT will continue to drive computing needs. However, the environmental footprint of the industry is growing at an alarming rate,” Alexander Danielsson, an investment manager at Norrsken VC noted last year when discussing that firm’s investment in Submer.

Solutions under the sea

If submerging servers in experimental liquids offers one potential solution to the problem — then sinking them in the ocean is another way that companies are trying to cool data centers without expending too much power.

Microsoft has already been operating an undersea data center for the past two years. The company actually trotted out the tech as part of a push from the tech company to aid in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine last year.

These pre-packed, shipping container-sized data centers can be spun up on demand and run deep under the ocean’s surface for sustainable, high-efficiency and powerful compute operations, the company said.

The liquid cooling project shares most similarity with Microsoft’s Project Natick, which is exploring the potential of underwater datacenters that are quick to deploy and can operate for years on the seabed sealed inside submarine-like tubes without any onsite maintenance by people. 

In those data centers nitrogen air replaces an engineered fluid and the servers are cooled with fans and a heat exchanger that pumps seawater through a sealed tube.

Startups are also staking claims to cool data centers out on the ocean (the seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake).

Nautilus Data Technologies, for instance, has raised over $100 million (according to Crunchbase) to develop data centers dotting the surface of Davey Jones’ Locker. The company is currently developing a data center project co-located with a sustainable energy project off the coast of Stockton, Calif.

With the double-immersion cooling tech Microsoft is hoping to bring the benefits of ocean-cooling tech onto the shore. “We brought the sea to the servers rather than put the datacenter under the sea,” Microsoft’s Alissa said in a company statement.

Ioannis Manousakis, a principal software engineer with Azure (left), and Husam Alissa, a principal hardware engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development (right), walk past a container at a Microsoft datacenter where computer servers in a two-phase immersion cooling tank are processing workloads. Photo by Gene Twedt for Microsoft.

Facebook launches profile frames that help you encourage friends to get the COVID-19 vaccine

By Sarah Perez

As Covid-19 vaccines are becoming more readily available to larger groups of the U.S. population, Facebook has teamed up with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to launch new Facebook profile frames that allow users to share their support for getting vaccinated with their family and friends. The effort follows a similar launch in the U.K. through a partnership with National Health Services (NHS), which has already resulted in a quarter of Facebook users in the U.K. having seen a Facebook friend with the profile frame.

At launch, users in the U.S. can pick between frames which include banners that say either “Let’s Get Vaccinated” or “I Got My Covid-19 Vaccine” in English or Spanish. The banner will appear overlaid on the edge of their profile picture next to a blue bubble that reads “We Can Do This.”

Although there were already a variety of vaccine-promoting profile frames to choose from on Facebook, these were all third-party efforts until now. The new frames were created, in part, by Facebook, which will allow the company to better track their usage over time.

Image Credits: Facebook

In the weeks ahead, Facebook says it will show people a summary in their News Feed of all your friends, family members and people you follow who are using the new Covid-19 vaccine profile frames. For that reason, adopting the first-party frames will be important, if you want to be a part of that list that’s shown to others.

Facebook notes that it’s launching the frames because research shows how social norms can have a major impact on people’s attitude and behavior when it comes to their health — a notable assertition, given that the company wants otherwise downplay the power its network has when it comes to the spread of disinformation or anti-vax sentiments.

For this effort, Facebook believes, and the research supports, that when people see others who they know and trust getting the vaccine, and they’ll be encouraged to do the same. This can be particularly effective when it comes to encouraging those who were otherwise unsure about getting the vaccine.

Leveraging social media to encourage vaccinations has been part of the CDC’s toolkit as well, which is why you likely saw several photos from healthcare workers and essentials workers sharing their vaccination photos and talking about their experience. The CDC had also provided a sets of sample social media graphics and messages that could be used by organizations that wanted to promote vaccinations across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The new profile frames are rolling out starting today to Facebook users in the U.S.

Spinning out from the cryptocurrency hardware developer Bitfury, LiquidStack pitches a data center cooling tech

By Jonathan Shieber

Data centers and bitcoin mining operations are becoming huge energy hogs, and the explosive growth of both risks undoing a lot of the progress that’s been made to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s one of the major criticisms of cryptocurrency operations and something that many in the industry are trying to address.

Enter LiquidStack, a company that’s spinning out from the cryptocurrency hardware technology developer Bitfury Group with a $10 million investment.

The company, which was formerly known as Allied Control Limited, restructured as a commercial operating company headquartered in the Netherlands with commercial operations in the U.S. and research and development in Hong Kong, according to a statement.

It was first acquired by Bitfury in 2015 after building a two-phase immersion cooling 500kW data center in Hong Kong, that purportedly cut energy consumption by 95% versus traditional air cooling technologies. Later, the companies jointly deployed 160 megawatts of two-phase immersion-cooled data centers.

“Bitfury has been innovating across multiple industries and sees major growth opportunities with LiquidStack’s game-changing cooling solutions for compute-intensive applications and infrastructure,” said Valery Vavilov, CEO of Bitfury. “I believe LiquidStack’s leadership team, together with our customers and strategic support from Wiwynn, will rapidly accelerate the global adoption and deployment of two-phase immersion cooling.”

The $10 million in funding came from the Taiwanese conglomerate Wiwynn, a data center and infrastructure developer with revenues of $6.3 billion last year.

“Wiwynn continues to invest in advanced cooling solutions to address the challenges of fast-growing power consumption and density for cloud computing, AI, and HPC,” said Emily Hong, chief executive of Wiwynn, in a statement.

In a statement, LiquidStack said its technology could enable at least 21 times more heat rejection per IT rack compared to air cooling — all without the need for water. The company said its cooling method results in a 41% reduction in energy used for cooling and a 60% reduction in data center space.

“Bitfury has always been focused on leading by example and is a technology driven company from the top of the organization, to its grass roots,” said Joe Capes, co-founder and chief executive of LiquidStack, in a statement. “Launching LiquidStack with new funding enables us to focus on our strengths and capabilities, accelerating the development of liquid cooling technology, products and services to help solve real thermal and sustainability challenges driven by the adoption of cloud services, AI, edge and high-performance computing.”

Proptech startup Knock secures $20M to grow SaaS platform for property managers

By Mary Ann Azevedo

In recent years, the U.S. has seen more renters than at any point since at least 1965, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau housing data. 

Competition for renters is fierce and property managers are turning to technology to get a leg up.

To meet that demand, Seattle-based Knock – one startup that has developed tools to give property management companies a competitive edge – has raised $20 million in a growth funding round led by Fifth Wall Ventures.

Existing backers Madrona Venture Group, Lead Edge Capital, Second Avenue Partners and Seven Peaks Ventures also participated in the financing, which brings the company’s total capital raised to $47 million.

Demetri Themelis and Tom Petry co-founded Knock in 2014 after renting “in super competitive markets” such as New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. 

“After meeting with property management companies, it was eye-opening to learn about the total gap across their tech stacks,” Themelis recalled.

Knock’s goal is to provide CRM tools to modernize front office operations for these companies so they can do things like offer virtual tours and communicate with renters via text, email or social media from “a single conversation screen.” For renters, it offers an easier way to communicate and engage with landlords. 

“Apartment buildings, like almost every customer-driven business, compete with each other by attracting, converting and retaining customers,” Themelis said. “For property management companies, these customers are renters.”

The startup — which operates as a SaaS business — has seen an uptick in growth, quadrupling its revenue over the past two years. Its software is used by hundreds of the largest property management companies across the United States and Canada and has more than 1.5 million apartment units using the platform. Starwood Capital Group, ZRS, FPI and Cushman & Wakefield (formerly Pinnacle) are among its users.

As Petry explains it, Knock serves as the sales inbox (chat, SMS, phone, email), sales calendar and CRM systems, all in one. 

“We also automate certain sales tasks like outreach and appointment scheduling, while also surfacing which sales opportunities need the most attention at any given time, for both new leases as well as renewals,” he said.

Image Credit: Knock

The company, Themelis said, was well-prepared for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our software supports property management companies, which operate high-density apartment buildings that people live and work in,” he told TechCrunch. “You can’t just ‘shut them down,’ which has made multifamily resilient and even grow in comparison to retail and industrial real estate.”

For example, when lockdowns went into effect, in-person property tours declined by an estimated 80% in a matter of weeks.

Knock did things like help property managers transition to a centralized and remote leasing model so remote agents could work across a large portfolio of properties rather than in a single on-site leasing office, noted Petry.

It also helped them adopt self-guided, virtual and live video-based leasing tools, so prospective renters could tour properties in person on their own or virtually.

“This transformation and modernization became a huge tailwind for our business in 2020,” Petry said. “Not only did we have a record year in terms of new customers, revenue growth and revenue retention, but our customers outperformed market averages for occupancy and rent growth as well.”

Looking ahead, the company says it will be using its new capital to (naturally!) hire across product, engineering, sales, marketing, customer success, finance and human resources divisions. It expects to grow headcount by 40% to 50% before year-end. It also plans to expand its product portfolio to include AI communications, fraud prevention, applicant screening and leasing, and intelligent forecasting. 

Fifth Wall partner Vik Chawla, who is joining Knock’s board of directors, pointed out that the macroeconomic environment is driving institutional capital into multifamily real estate at an accelerated pace. This makes Knock’s offering even more timely in its importance, in the firm’s view.

The startup, he believes, outshines its competitors in terms of quality of product, technical prowess and functionality.

“The Knock team has accomplished so much in just a short period of time by attracting very high quality product design and engineering talent to ameliorate a nuanced pain point in the tenant acquisition process,” Chawla told TechCrunch.

In terms of fitting with its investment thesis, Chawla said companies like Knock can both benefit from Fifth Wall’s global corporate strategic partners “and simultaneously serve as a key offering which we can share with real estate industry leaders in different countries as a potential solution for their local markets.”

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