Electric slide for tech industry?

Rising power consumption puts pressure on server makers to tame gear that's running hotter and hungrier.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--The computing industry is on a power trip, but it doesn't want to be.

Technology providers, customers, government officials and researchers gathered at Sun Microsystems' headquarters here Tuesday to try to tackle some of the problems posed by the runaway consumption of electricity by computing gear.

The problems arise from a confluence of business demands, rising energy prices and technology changes, which have led to chips and computers that consume more electricity. The result is a conflict of priorities. Some people try to pack servers in more densely to use floor space better, while others try to space them out to reduce overheating problems.

"We're at a perfect storm," Ben Williams, vice president of commercial business for chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices, said in a speech at the Global Conference on Energy Efficiency in the Data Center. "Business units are requiring IT departments to do more with less. We have (chief financial officers) question why all the racks aren't filled. The IT guys are saying 'I need another data center.' Then we have the rising cost of energy that's bringing all this to the forefront."

But it's in the interest of anyone consuming power to improve efficiency, argued Andrew Fanara of the EPA's Energy Star program. "Companies have to ask themselves, 'Am I willing to bet the cost of energy is going to go down?' That's the cost of doing nothing," Fanara said.

To get a grip on the problems, the tech industry has come up with solutions ranging from more energy-efficient Xeon processors to liquid cooling of high-end server systems.

Trends aren't promising. Four or five years ago, a 6-foot tall rack full of computing gear would consume 2 to 3 kilowatts, "but now we're talking about 10-, 15- or 20-kilowatt-draw racks," said Sun Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos. Google has warned that its server electricity costs soon might outpace its server purchase costs.

"Companies have to ask themselves, 'Am I willing to bet the cost of energy is going to go down?'"
--Andrew Fanara, Energy Star program, EPA

The problem is getting worse as data centers packed full of computers proliferate and grow in size. Data centers typically have raised floors with holes in them to direct specially cooled air coming from below straight into server compartments.

"Between now and 2009, we expect 12 million additional square footage of raised floor going into marketplace," IDC analyst Vernon Turner said. By comparison, the Mall of America in Minnesota, the world's largest shopping mall, measures 2.5 million square feet. "Think of that filled to the brim with servers," Turner said.

A large fraction of the energy consumed in data centers goes to waste, said Bob Sullivan, a data center design expert from the Uptime Institute. In a survey of 19 data centers, 1.4 kilowatts of power are wasted for every kilowatt of power consumed in computing activities, the research consultancy found.

Measure the problem
The first step, several at the conference agreed, is to develop a useful common measurement of system performance. The industry could then balance that against power consumption, to judge how bad the power efficiency problem is and how effective solutions might be.

"Most companies agree the priority...is an objective measurement of the service being delivered," Jonathan Koomey, a computer power expert who works at Stanford University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in an interview. He expects that measurement to emerge from discussions he's involved in, which have included server makers, the Environmental Protection Agency and others. "I would hope a year from now, we'll have at least a draft metric," he said.

But most speakers here were reluctant to suggest a performance measurement process, and several agreed it's a thorny issue. For one thing, different companies inevitably try to pick tests that make their own equipment look good. For another, it's never easy to pick tests that represent the performance of everything from processors to storage and networking.

"It's going to be tough to pick something that's broad enough and yet simple enough to be practical on a day-to-day basis," said Peter Bannon, vice president of architecture at P.A. Semi, a start-up that develops low-power processors.

Sun's Papadopoulos said that even something as apparently simple as a vehicle's fuel efficiency isn't straightforward to measure--and compare--in reality. A motorcycle beats out a sport-utility vehicle in raw miles per gallon, but an SUV can be more efficient overall because it can carry more passengers. But then SUVs often aren't always filled to capacity with passengers, so utilization also must be factored in.

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