Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, March 23, 2023

Password Crackers Give Immersion a Try 

A crew of security specialists have deployed a cracking-optimized computer that is completely immersed in mineral oil. 

A crew of security specialists have deployed a cracking-optimized computer that is completely immersed in mineral oil. This design uses less energy, cutting down on the monthly power bill and helping the environment at the same time.

Employees working for KoreLogic, a security consultancy, recently installed the password cracker at Midas Green Tech, a Texas-based datacenter that specializes in immersion-cooled server hosting. Rick Redman, a KoreLogic penetration tester, told Ars Technica that the cost of hosting this type of system is less than $60 a month, compared to $100 for an air-cooled system.

The platform contains two AMD Radeon 6990 graphics cards, each one costing around $800. Just one of these expensive cards has the parallel processing power to make as many as 9 billion password guesses every single second. However, this generates a lot of heat and noise.

Redman said, "I've got this machine. It's overheating. It's pumping out all this power. I don't want to run it in my house because it's too noisy and my wife complains. It's noisy like you wouldn't believe." He estimated that it would cost around $60 per month worth of electricity to run it at home.

This immersion technique is "green," according to Redman. "Because I don't have to worry about air flow, I can compact them together and make them so much tighter, so I can save space and use less energy and pay less money. It's cheaper and it's better and it's safer for my computer. It's illogical for me not to do it," he remarked.

Immerging devices like this is not new. In the 1980s, Cray Research submerged its Cray-2 supercomputer in fluorinert, a cooling liquid, to keep it from running hot. However, only recently has immersion cooling been used in commercial datacenters.

Chris Boyd, CTO of Midas Green Technologies said of the immersion cooling, "We've had electrical engineers who are afraid of mineral oil because they can see the blinking lights. They know there's live AC power in there. Psychologically, it's just a huge step for people to take their box and put it in liquid because we've been told from the time we're small children: 'Don't put anything electrical in the sink.' It's a big culture shift."

Since mineral oil doesn't conduct electricity, it's safe to place a computer into a tank filled with it. It's even fine to plug in an Ethernet cable. A few modifications need to be made first, such as removing the fans and replacing the thermal paste.

If you're considering this, Redman says that immersion-cooled systems work best with a solid-state drive. If this isn't an option, there are watertight enclosures for traditional hard drives.

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