Servers on Demand: Custom Water-Cooled Servers in One Hour


A wall of servers inside the new OVH facility near Montreal, Quebec. The former aluminum factory doubles as a data center and server manufacturing facility. (Photo: OVH)

In 2006, word began to emerge that Google was building its own servers to make its infrastructure faster and cheaper. The search giant wasn’t alone, though. By that time, French hosting company OVH had been building its own servers for a number of years, developing a design that use water-cooling.

“We’ve been doing our own servers from the beginnings of OVH in 1999,” said Germain Masse, the Chief Operating Office of OVH. “The 1U pizza box servers available at the time were real expensive. We didn’t think the way the components and drives were positioned was smart. We found it would be better if we could reduce the case to a simple sheet of metal. We could make them faster and more efficient.”

The concept for these early OVH designs – vanity-free hardware, minimalist server trays, a limited component set – may sound familiar. These are the guiding principles behind the Open Compute Project and other initiatives to customize hardware for cloud server farms. OVH was an unusually early adopter of the build-your-own hardware model, embracing the economics of hyperscale environments in its fast-growing hosting business.

OVH now has 150,000 servers running in eight data centers. The company’s newest campus in Quebec is a unique facility, housing a factory to assemble servers and the data center to house them. It is the engine for OVH’s ambitions in North America, where it hopes to sell hundreds of thousands of servers. The facility in Beauharnois is a former Rio Tinto aluminum factory located just 100 yards from a hydroelectric power dam and substations, providing access to more than 100 megawatts of power capacity.

OVH employees assemble the company's custom servers inside the Beauharnois data center facility. (Photo: OVH)

OVH employees assemble the company’s custom servers inside the Beauharnois data center facility. (Photo: OVH)

Inside the factory, a team of 25 workers man an assembly line where they build servers from boxes of components. Masse says OVH sources components from five different vendors, including Intel, whose Xeon and Atom chips are found in the company’s servers. Each server board takes about 15 minutes to build, and after being tested can be quickly deployed to racks housed in another part of the building.

OVH says that when a hosting customer places and order through its web site, the server can be built and installed in Quebec in less than an hour.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years now, so we know how many server orders we typically get,” said Masse, who said orders sometimes experience bottlenecks when the company introduces new server products or opens new data center facilities.

Masse said building its own servers gives OVH the freedom to innovate.

“We are free to choose the right manufacturer for our motherboard and drives, and free to change it when the market changes,” he said. “It allows us to choose the right equipment at the right time.”

Next: The Shift to Custom Water-Cooled Servers

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Hey Rich- Loved the article and we included it in our Monthly Resource Roundup- Cheers!