The US Department of Energy, which probably has the highest electric bill on the planet thanks to its many supercomputing laboratories, has ponied up $47m to help make data centers and telecommunications facilities more energy efficient.
Rather than doing research directly, Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration, says the DOE is kicking in funds pulled from last year's $787bn American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to push along efforts underway in the private sector to help make data centers more efficient and get them to market faster.
Focusing on IT is important because of the growing energy demands that data centers are making on the power grid. Chu said that data centers and telecom facilities consume around 120 billion kilowatt-hours of juice, and that in the United States, the growth in data center processing, storage, and networking capacity would require the building of two new power plants every year for the foreseeable future unless something changes.
"I have said many times before that we need a new industrial revolution," Chu explained. "We look at energy efficiency as some of the lowest-hanging fruit that we can pluck."
Chu added that if the technologies being developed under the funded projects were used in production, they would result in some 400 billion BTUs per year of energy being saved - enough to power around 2 million homes in the United States. And yes, Chu maddeningly shifted from kilowatt-hours to BTUs, but if I did my math right, it works out to 117.2 million kilowatt-hours. We are going to have to do better than that.
The $47m that Chu has committed to 14 projects is backed up by another $70m in private funding coming from the companies engaging in the research. As you might expect, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, the two biggest IT players in the world, received big portions of the funding, but SeaMicro, Yahoo, Columbia University, Alcatel-Lucent, Edison Materials, and Power Assure got bags of money too.
The DOE funding comes in three separate bags: one for tweaks to systems and software to lower energy usage, another for re-engineering of the power supply chain in data centers, and the last for work on cooling systems. In a conference call with journalists, Chu was vague about how the DOE decided what projects to fund, but he said that it used normal processes to make its awards - whatever that means when you are referring to the government and its money.
SeaMicro - a Silicon Valley startup backed by Khosla Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Crosslink Capital that is working on what it mysteriously calls "data center appliances" - nabbed $9.3m from Uncle Sam to field test a new kind of system that plunks "hundreds of low-power processors" into a single server. According to the document put out by the DOE describing the awards, the SeaMicro system that is in development has a work and sleep mode and will cut power consumption by about 75 per cent compared to traditional servers.
The careers page at the very skinny SeaMicro Web site, says the company is looking for a senior QA engineer for "designing, automating, and executing test plans for a complex datacenter appliance," and needs BSD and Linux software engineers with embedded systems backgrounds too.
As you can see from these patent applications, SeaMicro is working on a system that incorporates hardware-based virtualization that employs a direct interconnect fabric to mesh together system components. The word on the street last fall is that SeaMicro was cramming 80 of Intel's Atom chips into a single chassis.
Cash for Yahoo!
The second-largest grant coming out of DOE today went to Yahoo! to help it design and engineer a new passive-cooling data center that the Internet giant is setting up in Lockport, New York, outside of Buffalo. As El Reg reported last July, the Lockport site was selected by Yahoo for a $150m data center not only because of the temperature and then downright frigid temperatures of Buffalo but also because of the city's proximity to hydroelectric power generated by Niagara Falls.
The New York Power Authority, which runs the hydropower in western New York, has guaranteed a total of 15 megawatts of hydropower that is expected to save Yahoo around $100m over a 15-year period. The Feds just made this new data center a little cheaper. The Yahoo plan calls for ambient air to cool the Lockport data center for 99 per cent of the year.
Power Assure, a startup that has created software tools that can put servers to sleep and wake them up just before they are needed to support changing workloads, pocketed $5.1m demonstrate its technologies. Brad Wurtz, the company's president and chief executive officer, said in the call with Chu that the software the company has created to manage servers could cut power consumption of these devices by 50 per cent, and added that Power Assure was working with Xerox's PARC lab on research and development and had secured venture capital money in addition to the DOE grant to extend its products from servers to encompass all the other gear in the data center.
Wurtz cited unsourced statistics that claim in the United States that the average server utilization is still down around 10 to 12 per cent and that globally some $25bn is spent on electricity for servers that are idling. Power Assure wants to create products, says Wurtz, that double the efficiency of data centers in the next five years.
Hewlett-Packard cadged $7.4m to set up a row of containerized data centers in Houston, Texas, with high-voltage AC input power, chilled water for server and storage racks, and DC power distribution inside of the containers. This is not a new product - you know it as the POD, short for Performance Optimized Datacenter - but on the call, HP's Doug Oathout - vice president of converged infrastructure in the company's enterprise storage, servers, and networking group - said that the funding would help some power distribution and cooling projects that were in development at HP Labs and get them to market quicker.
IBM's TJ Watson Research Center got $1.67m to develop and field test tools that monitor temperature, humidity, air conditioning, and outside air properties so existing data centers can shave about 10 per cent off the energy bills. The research facility also got $2.35m to experiment with a liquid/metal dual-enclosure liquid cooling system that will make use of ambient air for cooling iron and also take the heat from the data center and use it for heating air and water for other parts of an office complex. IBM's goal is to take the requirements for cooling a data center from about 25 per cent of the total power budget, as it is today, and cut it by a factor of five down to 5 per cent.
Other projects funding by the DOE ARRA grab bag include $2.8m to Columbia University to make CPUs make better use of the power they draw (increasing efficiency by at least 10 per center by doing power conversion on the chip itself); $2.4m to Lineage Power to create and test a new power rectifier (for converting AC to DC current).
Rectifiers account for about 25 per cent of the energy consumed in data centers, and this one will have banks of rectifiers that can be turned off and on as workloads dictate, allowing the unit to always run the active rectifiers at peak load and therefore peak efficiency. Edison Materials secured $2.84m in funding to take off-the-shelf components and create a totally liquid cooled cluster platform aimed at the supercomputer crowd.
"We want to not only blunt the increase in energy usage, but to reverse it," Chu said, and added that when Uncle Sam and the refrigeration industry started changing laws and making products more efficient in the 1970s, this ended up saving as much energy as the United States currently generators with wind, geothermal, and photovoltaics today. "The savings in data centers will be even more profound."
The funding for the IT energy efficiency efforts by the DOE follows on the heels of $155m in ARRA dough that was allocated last November for 41 energy efficiency projects that DOE is supporting among power generators and distributors. That ARRA funding was backed by $634m in private funding by the companies involved in the projects.
Chu ended the announcement of the $47m in ARRA funding for IT-related energy projects by saying that the Obama Administration was committed to getting a "comprehensive energy bill," including provisions dealing with climate change, passed by Congress this year. "This is an opportunity for the United States to show leadership, and to profit from that leadership." ®