Goonhilly Unveils New Immersion-Cooled Platform, Doubles Down on Sustainability Mission

By Oliver Peckham

July 16, 2019

Goonhilly Earth Station has opened its new datacenter – an enhancement to its existing tier 3 facility – in Cornwall, England, touting an ambitious commitment to holistic sustainability as well as launching a managed, liquid immersion-cooled HPC platform for on-demand computing.

The goal? To turn Goonhilly — a global communications services hub and satellite station — into a UK hub for AI and ML services by providing highly efficient computational power close to its junction of subsea cables, satellite feeds and fiber networks. Speaking with HPCwire, Chris Roberts — head of datacenter and cloud for Goonhilly — explained that Goonhilly is aiming “to deliver as ecologically-sound a platform as possible whilst offering a very high-powered solution to people.”

The technology

The new, eco-friendly platform is designed for data-intensive use cases, including automotive applications, life sciences and aerospace research. To reduce the energy use of HPC and increase the facility’s possible density, Goonhilly is beginning to deploy immersion cooling systems from Submer.

Submer immersion cooling in action. Image courtesy of Submer.

Specifically, Goonhilly is deploying Submer’s “SmartPod” technology. “We can take special purpose-built machines, off the rack servers – very little prep is needed to use almost anything you have,” said Jeff Hardy, a communications strategist for Submer. “In fact, the only requirement really is that even storage can be submerged as long as it’s not spinning drives.” For most servers, the only preparation required before submerging them is to remove the heatsink and the thermal paste from the processors.

Goonhilly chose Submer predominantly due to the power savings: using immersion cooling instead of air cooling resulted in energy savings of up to 65 percent on a system-by-system basis. This also resulted in greater spatial efficiency – according to Roberts, a significantly higher workload per square foot. Roberts said that the first unit was delivered, immersed and serving content within five days. “If the deployment time is anything like we’ve seen already,” he said, “you could scale up – add a unit, three, four, five units in very quick succession […] without worrying about cooling it.”

Submer’s proprietary submersion fluid is held up as being non-volatile, non-toxic and biodegradable. “Not only is it environmentally-productive at saving electricity,” said Hardy, “there’s nothing about the Submer unit that is environmentally harmful or hazardous for the people using it – which is something that’s rather new.”

Goonhilly’s initial deployment is ten GPU-accelerated servers (half with AMD Vega GPUs and half with Nvidia graphics cards), supplied by France-based systems integrator 2CRSI. The first installed system will run an earth observation application and a big data analytics platform.

As far as plans to expand? “One hundred percent,” said Roberts, citing a number of institutions and corporations who are ready to put workloads on Goonhilly’s systems, including Zizo, a UK company that provides big data analytics as a service.

Goonhilly also said it will also be sharpening its AI skills as a member of the Nvidia Inception program, which will provide training and access to Nvdia’s DGX-1 system.

Beyond carbon neutrality

“We’re aiming to take advantage of all the natural assets that we have in Cornwall,” said Roberts. To start, Goonhilly has installed a 350 kW photovoltaic solar array – which, they say, is sometimes able to meet the datacenter’s power needs (which range up to about 500 kW) on a sunny day. 

Goonhilly’s solar array. Image courtesy of Goonhilly Earth Station.

Still, Goonhilly’s vision of a 100 percent renewable-powered datacenter remains a vision – for now. To bridge the gap between the site’s energy needs and its renewable energy output, they are looking into working with a wind farm just a few fields away. Jeff also mentions ongoing work to convert biomass into boiler energy. As far as Goonhilly sees it, these efforts are just the beginning.

“This is beyond carbon neutrality,” said Jeff. “A lot of businesses and datacenters have to achieve carbon neutrality by buying carbon offsets … or by planting trees in exotic locations. But Goonhilly is really interesting in that they’re approaching carbon zero on their own – nothing external.” Goonhilly’s advantage, Jeff said, is that they are “approaching the same problem from two sides at once” – both through renewable energy and through intensely energy-efficient hardware.

Complicating this ambition is the inherently intermittent nature of solar and wind energy, as well as Goonhilly’s plans to expand – which, under the current infrastructure, could drive the site’s power needs as high as five megawatts (MW). Goonhilly is already preparing to address these concerns. “There are a number of different storage solutions that [Goonhilly is] looking at currently,” said Roberts – and, he said, the goal remains to power the center with inside-the-fence renewable energy solutions, even as its needs scale up.

For Goonhilly, sustainability goes beyond marketability – it’s a way of doing their part to address a deep-seated incongruity in the use of datacenters for science. “AI is being used for a lot of very good stuff – looking at things like climate change or reducing [its] impacts … things like increasing crop yield – all things that are for the good of the planet,” said Roberts. But then, he recalls a statistic he read recently: that training a single AI model can produce as much atmospheric carbon as the lifetime emissions of five cars, including fuel.

“We have to accept that trying to solve some of these problems takes a lot of compute power,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to do as much as we can to reduce that footprint.”

The launch

In advance of the ribbon-cutting for the datacenter (which is targeted for mid-September), Goonhilly is celebrating the operational launch of its first Submer-cooled system on July 18, 2019, at an on-site event. The event – which coincides with Goonhilly’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing – will include panel discussions on trends in AI, cloud and edge computing.

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