Monday, October 24, 2005

Low power computers and being "green"

Remember a few years ago there were power blackouts in California? They were a big problem, the governor (a Democrat) trying to get the federal power agency to step in to do something but they refused. Conveniently this issue was a hook later used in the recall campaign won by that third rate actor from Austria allowing the Republicans to gain some control over California. And those same power blackouts were later found to be caused by highly illegal "gaming" of the power distribution by Enron and others (Enron conveniently being highly friendly to President Bush, as in Bush used Enron's corporate jet during his presidential campaign).

Cronyism aside, there was a technical issue at play. The .COM boom was well underway, which led to a massive increase in "server farm" construction. A "server farm" is a room jampacked with "server" computers, the kind that run web sites. It's seen to be most efficient to jam as many server computers into as small a space as you can, because real estate has a cost proportional to square footage of the rooms it occupies. The less square footage, the lower cost, generally.

But what that meant was you suddenly had a greater density of power demand than the power companies had planned for. A single building housing a server farm might have a power usage level equivalent to a small town.

See, there are several costs in running a server farm. In addition to the square footage, you have to provide electricity, backup generators, air conditioning, lighting, and staff. The more computers you have in a room, the higher the electric bill, the larger the required backup generators, the huger the air conditioning system, and the more people you must have onhand to handle the required work.

But, that makes an assumption that each server takes the same power requirements as all other servers. Fortunately that's not true. Just as you can buy light bulbs that produce the brightness but using less power (e.g. compact flourescents use 1/3rd the power to make the same number of lumens), you can find server computers that handle the same compute load for less power.

For example, Sun Microsystems is lately talking loudly about new Opteron based server computers that use greatly less power than competitors (video and feature article), and a few years ago RLX Computing tried to make headway selling server computers using the Transmeta CPU which was designed for lower-power-consumption and meant for portable computers.

When a computer uses less electricity to perform the same work, you see a decrease in electricity consumption, air conditioning, and backup generator requirements. The decrease in AC needs itself decreases electricity consumption. And all that in turn decreases the environmental impact.

See: DEC veterans prepare chip challenge for Intel, AMD, IBM and Sun (By Ashlee Vance in Mountain View, Published Monday 24th October 2005 21:23 GMT)