Saturday, November 17, 2007

Eco-computing can spell energy profits

Beleaguered IT managers already have to deal with fast-changing technologies, rising user expectations and gnarly recruiting situations.

Now, they face a new challenge. They're being asked, "How Green is Your Silicon Valley?" Under slogans like "Eco-computing" and "Green IT," environmental awareness has caught the attention of computer giants such as Intel, IBM and Sun Microsystems. And they don't need Al Gore to preach for them. It's a matter of dollars and cents.

"The average data centre consumes 10 to 30 times the amount of power as the average office space, when compared on a square-foot basis," says Chris Pratt, strategic initiatives executive with IBM Canada.

In fact, he says the costs of running computers will soon overtake the cost of buying them. This is supported by a January 2007 study from research firm IDC that found today, for every dollar spent on new hardware, an additional 50 cents is spent on power and cooling, more than double the amount of five years ago. The power and cooling cost is expected to rise to reach $1 per $1 of hardware costs by 2012.

Pratt points to IBM's own efforts in this area, from "computers that will dynamically turn parts of themselves off" to "server virtualization," which involves using fewer computers more intensively. He jokes that floor space that was converted from data centres to offices is now being turned into central server rooms. He also thinks that tape is coming back as a "greener" data-storage medium than disk.

Pratt says IBMers can have either a laptop or a desktop computer, but not both. They must walk to a central printer pool to pick up their printouts and their files are stored centrally, not on energy-guzzling PC hard disks. Pratt says some people are even turning off their computers at night, or, if they must be left running, donating the processing cycles to public service projects such as World Community Grid.

The IBM folks are almost evangelistic about their green initiative. Pratt says that IBM is looking to save five billion kilowatt hours, "which equals the power consumption of the city of Paris, France.?

He points to their Bromont, Que., plant, which has consistently exceeded their energy saving targets.

Their latest innovation, which IBM says is a first in North America, is "stored cooling.?

Pratt says this is a process that allows them to maximize the efficiency of their chillers and cooling, "and take full advantage of the free cooling that comes from Canada's climate."

Think giant cylinders of a goop that stores thermal energy like batteries store electricity, and releases it on demand under computer control. The system is made by Quebec-based Groupe √Čnerstat Inc.

IBM notes that the energy savings associated with this project are in the vicinity of six per cent a year and will reduce electrical power demand by more than one megawatt, saving the company $350,000 per year at that plant alone.

Pushing Green IT is good business for IBM. Pratt has just completed presentations in Toronto and Calgary as part of CIO Canada magazine's "Frankly Speaking" breakfast series. He encourages IT managers to do a data centre energy audit, just like you would do at home, and points to a free tool on the IBM website ( systems/energyassess) to get them started.

Pratt also notes that "you don't have to have a thousand machines to benefit from this. Someone who is a small or medium-sized business, with 20 or 30 systems, can consolidate down to four or five systems ... and there's nothing but benefits from that."

IT power consumption can become an urgent business issue. IBM and other companies say they have customers, mainly in California, who cannot take delivery of much-needed computers because they simply cannot get power for them at any price.

Almost all computer makers are joining the push to Green IT. Dell has announced free recycling for any Dell-branded product, and pledged to "eliminate in our new products all remaining uses of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) by 2009."

Lenovo, which was spun off from IBM and now does US$13 billion in annual revenues from PC sales, is touting its new ThinkCentre A61e desktop as saving on average more than $20 a year in energy costs and the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions created by two round-trip flights from Boston to New York.

At the bleeding edge of technology, Jai Menon, an IBM Fellow based in Almaden, Calif., recently showed off a possible future IBM product nicknamed the IceCube. IBM marketers apparently didn't want to share a name with a notorious rapper, so it's properly called "Intelligent Bricks."

Imagine a stack of generic, but very high-powered computing cubes that aren't even connected to each other by wires.

Data is transferred by capacitive coupling. Menon says this makes it easy to slip out components that fail, creating an energy-efficient, highly reliable system out of less-reliable components.

The thing looks like a bunch of giant Lego until you realize that the working prototype cube can hold 27 terabytes (27 million megabytes) of information and provide more processing power than most of us will ever need.

Ah, but there are people who will always want more. Folks like Chuck Boeheim, the assistant director of computer services at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California. They work on really big problems and needed to pop in another 200 computers.

Problem was, according to Boeheim, they simply had no space and couldn't build it in time. So they became the first customer to get a "Project Blackbox" unit from Sun Microsystems. It fits on a flatbed truck and basically gives you a data centre in a box. A very big box.

Elizabeth From, director of strategy for California-based Sun, brought the Blackbox to Calgary recently and ushered a stream of energy industry executives through it. She says it takes server virtualization one step further.

"We decided to get 'out of the box' and asked, what if the unit to be virtualized was the data centre, instead of the server? So we decouple the brick-and-mortar aspect of the data centre from what it does."

At about US$500,000, it's not for everyone. But it does, in her words, work well for companies that need reliable plug-and-play computing capacity, even in remote or disaster areas.

Like most computer vendors hopping onto the Green IT train, From sees the push to more environmental awareness as a golden business opportunity for her company.

"Eco means economic and energy and ecology," she says. "So for us, it's green money and green environment."