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Data center power still a major concern

Posted: 16 Feb 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:EPA? Intel? AMD? Hewlett-Packard? IBM?

Computer servers, network switches and hard-disk arrays may someday have to meet standard metrics in energy efficiency if they are to be sold into top U.S. government and commercial data centers. But while the exact nature of those standards is still a matter of debate, many agree that power consumption in large data centers that run supercomputers and other high-end systems is becoming a major problem that needs to be resolved.

The U.S. Congress passed legislation in late December that begins that work. The legislation mandates that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) work with computer makers to draft a study recommending whether the government should adopt new incentives to handle rising power consumption in data centers. The EPA has six months to submit the study to Congress.

In December, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) hosted a meeting with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and a broad swath of chip, system and software makers to discuss the problem. Today's large data centers can consume tens of megawatts, making energy the defining factor for new government and commercial installations, executives said there.

For example, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is starting work on a new data center that "could triple power requirements of the whole lab, so it is getting attention from the director on down," said William Tschudi, a project manager for the lab. "These supercomputers used to be purchased for performance at any cost, but as power requirements get into the tens of megawatts, the cost of power is becoming an issue."

A handful of companiesincluding AMD, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystemsbanded together in April 2005 under the banner of the Green Grid initiative to address the problem. The group is still sorting through the legal issues attendant on establishing a formal body, and expects to complete its examination early this year. When it formally announces itself, the group is expected to include a broad array of computer companies, including Intel. A technical working group has been meeting and is said to have set an agenda it is still keeping secret until the formal debut.

At that point, the group expects to invite more members from government and industry to take part. The EPA has been briefed on the group's plans. However, some DOE officials only discovered its existence at the meeting at AMD's California offices.

Industry executives hope they can take the lead in setting energy efficiency metrics for their systems. They look to the government to provide more funding for research, market awareness and purchasing incentives for energy-efficient computers and other data-center gear.

At the meeting, industry representatives encouraged the DOE officials to view the Green Grid as a primary forum for engaging the computer industry on issues about power in the data center. "The worst thing we could do is fracture the limited expertise in the industry on these issues across multiple forums," said John Pflueger, a technology strategist for Dell and a member of the Green Grid's technical working group.

Computational fluid dynamics is one of many tools being considered for modeling heat flow in data centers.

Six others
"They can be a useful group, but we won't be working with them exclusively," said Andy Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at DOE, who convened the meeting at AMD headquarters. "There are at least seven different groups developing performance metrics" for energy efficiency in data centers that the DOE is now aware of, he said.

"There are a lot of people putting a lot of work into this area, but it's unclear how long it will take," said AMD's Steve Kester, government relations manager, in a separate interview.

The government does not foresee a need for regulation in data centers, but is open to ideas for incentive packages. "We have lots of tools yet to be applied with full force in this area," Karsner said.

Some people at the DOE meeting said the data center needs the equivalent of the EPA's Energy Star program, which sets efficiency standards for desktop PCs and consumer appliances. Others said a program for data-center gear would require different, more complex metrics.

"It's premature to consider an Energy Star program for the data center" while the Green Grid work is still going on, said Kester.

One of the problems unique to the data center is the lack of standards for measuring how air conditioning is delivered to large racks of systems, according to computer system engineers.

"We're getting better in power efficiency with every processor generation, but we could get another 20 percent to 40 percent in energy efficiency if we could make changes in some of the mechanical infrastructure in the data center," said Andy Bechtolsheim, an attendee of the DOE meeting and the chief architect and co-founder of Sun.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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