Watt's up – Business Report

Intel has shifted focus from raw speed to "performance per watt". Business users now face the challenge of getting more work done while using less energy. Danny Bradbury reports for the Guardian.

“Plug & play" was a slogan Microsoft used in 1995 to describe peripherals that just worked when you plugged them in. Who knew that, 10 years later, the most serious problem facing business computer users could be "plug & pay"?

With skyrocketing energy costs, the price and availability of electricity is becoming a serious problem for some IT users. And the larger the computing infrastructure, the greater the problem. Google's huge network of computers causes constant power headaches, says Google fellow Urs Hölzle. "If you look at what you spend on turning on this hardware and leaving it on for its three-year lifetime, you will see that depending on your infrastructure, you pay half as much to the electricity company as you pay for your hardware."

Cost isn't the only issue, says Brent Kirby, product marketing manager for Opteron processors at chip-maker AMD. Data centres - the dust free rooms where companies house their central computers - suck up large amounts of electricity not only to power the installed computers, but also on the air conditioning to keep them cool. Because companies can only feed so much electricity into a finite space, capacity is becoming a big issue. "Data centres are having problems increasing computer capability in the confines of their power and cooling capabilities. People say they have more empty aisles than they do processing power," warns Kirby.

By producing dual core chips (two processors on a single piece of silicon), chip vendors can boost computing power without increasing power consumption. AMD has produced relatively low voltage versions of its Opteron chip, designed for workstations and servers. It now offers 95, 55 and 30-watt versions, says Kirby.

After tackling power issues for mobile computers with its Centrino chipset two years ago, Intel also plans to produce lower-power desktop and server processors next year, says the company's chief executive officer, Paul Otellini. And Intel's tiny rival Transmeta has been producing low-power processors for years.

But processor power consumption isn't the only inefficiency in computing, warns Dave Thornley, service support manager at Sheffield Hallam University. Power-hungry servers often sit relatively idle because each server only runs a few applications that do not need all the processor power all the time. Thornley's servers historically only ran at between 5% and 15% of the processor capacity.

Software vendor VMware helped him to virtualise his computers. Virtualisation software can make a single computer look like multiple computers, enabling different operating systems and applications to run on a single machine. Taylor consolidated 35 servers on to one server running at up to 60% of its computing capacity. This enabled him to freeze his data centre's power consumption, which was getting close to capacity.

But making the data centre more power efficient is only part of the challenge. Many companies have thousands of desktop computers sucking up power, often when employees are at lunch, attending meetings or at home overnight.

Modern PCs include an Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI), which defines different automatic "sleep modes" for computers to help reduce power consumption. However, in a report on energy efficiency for domestic ICT equipment, research firm Intertek argued that, in many companies, IT supervisors disable ACPI.

London-based 1E sells Nightwatchman, a power management tool that enables administrators to shut down and restart PCs from a central control point, if users forget to turn them off. The software uses built-in scripts to automatically save open files, protecting data before shutting down the PC. Turning PCs on 15 minutes before clocking-on time means they have booted by the time people arrive, says chief executive Sumir Karayi.

Karayi is angry at what he sees as government apathy over power management. The Carbon Trust, a government-funded non-profit organisation that promotes energy saving measures for business, manages a list of technologies called the efficient technology list (ETL). Businesses purchasing energy-efficient products within categories included on the ETL can benefit from an Enhanced Capital Allowance scheme.

Instead of collecting the tax allowances on capital expenditures for ETL-listed products over a number of years, companies receive the whole allowance in the first year. Sadly, IT items such as PCs and peripherals are not on the four-year-old list. Moreover, Andrew Watson, director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy, complains that the UK has failed to join a voluntary European initiative called the Group for Energy Efficient Appliances. This promotes office equipment that meets strict energy-saving criteria, including PCs.

But the Carbon Trust, which reviews the ETL annually, has rejected Karayi's request to include computer power management on the list.

"It does not make sense that the Carbon Trust actively recommends PCs be turned off at night, yet has refused to take steps to assist companies in achieving this goal," Karayi says. "Either it does not understand the complexity of the situation or it is interested in self-promotion rather than practical steps to reduce office-based emissions." Carbon Trust representatives refused to comment.

Either way, it seems it is up to UK business to shoulder the cost of reducing IT power consumption by installing specialist software, providing computer usage guidelines for employees, and using the built-in power settings - and that's one charge that will be particularly unwelcome.

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