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The future of global IT: It's all about energy


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Sustainability is no longer a bonus. Directly addressing sustainability leads directly to a lowest cost infrastructure.

By Simon Firth, Sept. 2007

HP Fellow Chandrakant Patel is thinking big about the future of information technology.

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How big? Try a vision that encompasses all the IT equipment operating anywhere in the world. That’s every cell phone, PDA, laptop and PC on the planet, plus every router, server and data center, plus all the services that run over and between them all. Put together, they amount to what Patel calls the "global IT ecosystem."

When you look at that system, you can see a big problem looming – energy.

Patel, who pioneered research into energy-efficient computing at HP Labs in the early 1990s, believes the energy needed to make, operate and cool IT equipment will be the biggest factor in determining the shape of the system as a whole. As a result, the philosophy behind creating, purchasing and operating IT systems needs to change.

The change could have a profound but positive impact on the world – resulting in big financial savings for IT operators and customers, while at the same time giving the planet a badly needed environmental break.


Energy demand soaring

data center flow Patel, who is sharing his vision for a sustainable IT ecosystem at the Always On network's first GoingGreen conference this month, points to a simple reality of computing: As computer processors get more powerful, they also generate more heat. Today it can take as much energy to cool an IT device in a data center as to power it.

"Work is now required along the entire stack in the IT system to remove heat – from chip to the cooling tower," Patel says.

That comes at a huge price. In just a few years we’re likely to see some four billion mobile devices accessing some 5,000 data centers worldwide. To power this global ecosystem will take nearly 70 GigaWatts of power a year – enough to power 70 million homes.

"In terms of destruction of available energy," says Patel, "that’s equivalent to around 300 million metric tons of coal a year and the release of some 585 million metric tons of CO2."


Costs are growing

Now add to that the reality that energy is likely only to increase in price in the future. 

When energy was inexpensive and often subsidized, reliability was more important than the cost of power.

"The prevailing wisdom was that nobody in IT ever got fired for wasting energy. But people did get fired for bringing a server down," says Patel.

The thinking is changing.

One inspiration for that is work that Patel initiated at HP, which shows that the overall cost of power to IT equipment (the 'burdened cost of power') now exceeds the depreciation cost of that equipment.  (See HP technical reports Energy Flow in the Information Technology Stack: Introducing the Coefficient of the Ensemble at its Impact on Total Cost of Ownership and Cost Model for Planning, Development and Operation of a Data Center.


Dynamic Smart Cooling

A part of the burdened cost of power calculation is the cost of putting your gear to full use – a problem endemic to data centers that can’t be fully populated by servers because they run too hot. At the same time, most data centers lack adequate air-conditioning controls. For example, the fans run at only one speed – the highest one.

"Would you buy a ceiling fan without a dial to alter its speed?" Patel asks. "Probably not. Yet most air conditioners in most data centers do not have such a dial."

It was problems like these that prompted Patel to found HP Labs' thermal  technology research program and start a virtual thermal research community -- the HP Cool Team. The team's work led to the development of HP's Dynamic Smart Cooling, where sensors direct cooling only to the places in the data center that really need it, allowing it to run at greater efficiency and lower total operating cost.


Raw materials, manufacturing a factor

Shreds of metal on a conveyor belt at an HP computer recycling facility in Roseville, California One more element in the global IT equation is the cost of energy used in making IT equipment. 

Mining, processing and refining the raw materials requires energy. So does manufacturing the equipment and delivering it.

"Inevitably, finite energy resources will be destroyed in that process," says Patel. "We need to create a design system that takes into account the worldwide energy supply and minimizes destruction of available energy.” 

Such designs must consider the entire lifecycle of a material, including the degree to which it can be repeatedly recycled and ultimately returned to as close to its original state as possible, he says.


New metric for IT system design

All of these concerns are behind Patel's drive for a new philosophy for developing the next generation of IT systems.

“In the future, we will end up judging IT decisions based on the pool of available energy resources that we are depleting from the ground," he says.

Technically speaking, this is the second law of thermodynamics, which says that although using a resource (e.g., burning coal) does not result in destruction of energy, it does destroy its available energy – that is, its ability to do useful work.

Such available energy is often called exergy and the unit in which it is measured is a joule.

“In a flat world,” suggests Patel, “the only currency is going to be joules – not yuans, not rupees, not dollars. What we want to do in our future research is to look at the entire IT ecosystem from end to end and quantify the available energy destroyed."


Smart IT needed

Experimental data center heat mapAs a first step, HP Labs is working with University of California at Berkeley Professor of Mechanical Engineering Van P. Carey to build a tool called 'the Lifetime Exergy Adviser' that would show product designers the total environmental impact (from extraction to shipping to operation and recycling) of using different kinds (and combinations) of materials in their designs. 

Patel also advocates that the 'smart' data center concept – where available energy is provisioned only when required by the equipment – be extended to the concept of 'Smart IT.'  All IT systems, all over the world "need to place their workloads from a total cost point of view – as a balance of power, cooling and computing needs."

That cost, he says, should be measured in terms of available energy or exergy consumed.

That will require creating global IT systems that have a pervasive sensing, control and communications infrastructure, so system operators can tell what is needed and then deliver it remotely, anywhere in the world.  


Sustainability is essential

"We need a library of solutions over which we can lay a demand-based provisioning system," Patel suggests. "Everything we build must have that now – allowing us the scalability and flexibility we need."

There’s a lot of work to be done, says Patel, but people are getting the message.

"When we started this, we said management of energy as a key resource is going to be a requirement in the IT ecosystem. And sustainability was a bonus. 

"Sustainability is no longer a bonus," he says, "Directly addressing sustainability leads directly to a lowest cost infrastructure."

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