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IBM wants to power down computers

Big Blue enlists the Defense Department's research unit--plus $2 million in cash--to help curb computers' growing appetite for power. Does the effort fly in the face of history?

IBM is stepping up its efforts to curb computers' growing appetite for power.

Big Blue, which launched a project last year to investigate low-power computer technology with the University of Pittsburgh, will announce Wednesday that it has begun working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create computers that use less power.

DARPA, which is the U.S. Defense Department's central research and development organization, will give IBM about $2 million to help fund IBM's Low Power Center research lab as part of a new joint government and industry program called Power-Aware Computing and Communications (PACC).

Reining in computer power consumption is important for reasons ranging from reducing the cost of ownership to increasing computer reliability, especially in hot climates. But the effort flies in the face of years of history. Each new generation of computers has been faster and able to crunch more data--but at the expense of greater power consumption.

The quest for higher performance can cost companies dearly. IBM, citing numbers compiled from third parties, said that about 25 percent of a company's data-center budget goes to providing electricity to run and cool computers. Overall, about 10 percent of the electricity consumed in North America goes to support information technology systems, according to a U.S. Energy Department study cited by Big Blue.

Without consumption curbs, the amount of energy used to power and then cool computing equipment will increase exponentially, IBM executives said.

The company is already working to reduce energy consumption as it increases the performance of its processors. However, though chips may seem the most logical starting point, researchers really must scour the entire computer for opportunities to conserve, said Nick Donofrio, IBM's senior vice president for technology and manufacturing.

Low-power "technology has got to find its way everywhere, into all the servers we build, all the storage systems we build and all the personal systems," Donofrio said. "The how do you (create) that box without sacrificing performance and cost?"

IBM researchers will work on many elements of computers--from processors to operating systems--to shrink power consumption. The company will also create tools for companies to analyze the energy consumption of their computers.

IBM, which opened the Low Power Center inside its Austin, Texas, research lab in October, has about 37 researchers on the case. While not every researcher works on DARPA-sponsored projects, those at the Low Power Center are working to create super-dense and energy-efficient computing clusters, groups of networked computers that are usually stacked together in a rack. These technologies could go into servers and storage systems in the future.

The researchers are also working on lower-power storage systems. IBM executives consider this just the beginning and say they will use the DARPA grants to help further these and other projects.

While everyone agrees that cutting back on power use is a good idea, it's a tricky prospect, analysts say.

"The challenge (for IBM and other computer companies) is how to deliver good computational performance and deliver lower power in the process," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64. "Operating systems can have a big impact on how (computer) components are turned on and off and energy consumption is managed. But I think at lot of that low-hanging fruit has already been harvested."

IBM has proven it can be creative, minting low-power processors such as the PowerPC 405LP. The chip was designed for use in devices such as personal digital assistants.

Meanwhile, Big Blue is not alone in pursuing lower-power computer technology. Intel, Hewlett-Packard and a number of other companies are also conducting their own research into low-power computers.

Intel is investigating technologies that can reduce processor power consumption. One way it has discussed doing so is through chips that can automatically shut off various parts of the processor when not in use.

HP researchers are also working on other technologies, including a new liquid cooling technique for processors that uses technology borrowed from HP InkJet printers.