Inside the offices of Ebullient Cooling, computers in all stages of disassembly are sitting on racks or piled on desks.
Set on the second floor of the Madison Enterprise Center, this isn’t one of those workplaces with a foosball table and craft beers in the break room. Ebullient more resembles an inventor’s workshop.
That’s because some serious stuff is happening here. Ebullient has a patented device that cools the guts of a computer so you don’t need to air condition the whole server room to prevent processors from overheating — a disaster that could lead to lost data or worse.
Considering that up to 40 percent of a company’s electricity costs can go toward simply keeping the AC running at full blast, the savings could be substantial.
Ebullient’s chief operating officer, Mike Major, thinks it’s absolutely crazy to waste all that money — and energy — cooling a big room when the only thing that really needs to chill are the tiny chips.
“It’s like keeping your whole house at zero degrees to make sure the ice stays frozen in the refrigerator,” he said.
The problem of cooling IT equipment is so significant that big players like Google, Microsoft and Facebook have actually been locating their giant server rooms above the Arctic Circle in Greenland or Finland where temperatures are significantly lower. A typical data center can contain up to 10,000 servers.
But moving the equipment north isn’t a real solution, said Major. Fresh air cooling comes with its own set of issues — namely the fine particles that can wreck any processor not stored in a clean room. And getting IT maintenance professionals to relocate to the Arctic isn’t an easy sell.
“We think we’ve got a much simpler solution,” said Major, 34, a native of Poland who came to the UW-Madison to earn a master’s degree in engineering. During a recent tour of the facility he was joined by Steve Meives, 31, director of product development.
Ebullient’s approach to cooling the inside of a powerful server is pretty straightforward.
A tiny liquid-cooled radiator the size of a post-it note fits over the top of each individual processor and absorbs the heat pouring off the chip. The hot liquid then flows through plastic tubes to a large heat dispensing unit outside the server room where it can cool down.
As the liquid returns to room temperature, it then flows back to the server and repeats the process. It’s a closed loop system that Ebullient thinks gets around the problems associated with using water or even oil to cool down a huge bank of computers.
Credit for the two-phase cooling system goes to Tim Shedd, an engineering professor at UW-Madison who, with a staff of engineers, started working on the concept a dozen years ago. Shedd serves as president/CEO of Ebullient.
Things really took off last summer when Shedd and Major packed up a prototype and drove to Silicon Valley to show it off.
Getting a positive reaction, Ebullient refocused in August 2014 after raising $1 million in early stage investment capital. It now counts 7 employees in Madison and two more working remotely.
Cost of installing the system varies depending on how many servers need to be cooled but Major estimates the payback at one to two years for the typical customer. Prices run roughly $300 per server.
“I think we’ve got a story, not just about ourselves, but the great manufacturing in this state,”’ said Major. “It’s a real Wisconsin story.”