February 1, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Electric slide for tech industry?

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One fix from decades ago that's come back into vogue is liquid cooling. Hewlett-Packard, Egenera, Silicon Graphics and IBM all have added liquid-cooling options to their hardware.

"Water cooling and liquid cooling is coming back," data center design expert Sullivan said. "From an efficiency standpoint, the closer you can get water cooling to the processor, the more efficient it's going to be."

Plugging processor leaks
Chip designers are working on ways to reduce power consumption. Processors have become a major electrical problem in part because newer manufacturing technologies have led to electrical current "leakage" rather than fruitful use.

For servers with two processor sockets, Intel's current "Irwindale" models of Xeon chips consume 110 watts. But Michael Patterson, a thermal engineer in Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, said a significant power improvement will arrive in the upcoming "Woodcrest" model. That chip, due in the second half of 2006, has dual-processing cores, employs an architecture taken from the Pentium M mobile processor and is built with a new manufacturing process with 65-nanometer features compared to Irwindale's 90-nanometer process.

Woodcrest CPUs will use 80 watts, Patterson said. "That's not a low-voltage part. That's the performance-optimized processor," he said.

In addition, Intel said last week that the next "Montecito" generation of its higher-end Itanium processor will consume 100 watts, compared with 130 watts for current models.

The next problem will be in the computer's memory subsystem, which will guzzle more than half of a computer's power by 2008, Papadopoulos said. "These things are pigs," he said, and they're only getting worse with the move to DDR2 memory and, later, fully buffered DIMMs," he said, referring to a newer version of the double data rate memory standard and to its higher-speed sequel.

Sun just introduced its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara"-based servers, which need much less power than most mainstream servers, and is working on two technologies it hopes will reduce electricity consumption further.

"Computer memory subsystems are pigs."
--Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer, Sun

One is proximity input-output, which replaces communications wires and their accompanying processing chips with direct connections between the bottom of one processor and the top of another. Another is technology that has optical, rather than electrical, communication links.

Regarding energy use, "proximity I/O is way favorable. You get much higher bit (transfer) rates, and the power-per-bit (cost) goes way down," Papadopoulos said.

Also under way are methods to increase server utilization, so that systems can run closer to top capacity. Turner said many customers sheepishly report their servers are only running at 17 percent capacity on average, but in fact that's better than most.

One tool in extending utilization is virtualization, a technology that enables several operating systems to reside on the same server, among other things. "Only 20 percent of data centers we survey aren't doing virtualization, and I think they're the 'going out of business' data centers," Turner said.

The quickest, easiest step to improve power problems today is to install more-efficient power supplies, Berkeley's Koomey said. The EPA lets manufacturers give such supplies, which convert AC power from the wall to DC power used inside the computer, an "80+" label if they're more than 80 percent efficient. That "Energy Star" label means that they lose less than 20 percent of the power they draw in waste heat. But efficiencies of only 70 or 72 percent are typical for power supplies.

Those EPA Energy Star labels won't work for servers, though, because customers order them in too wide a variety of configurations, Patterson said.

"There's a huge number of permutations of what it's going to look like. There's not going to be a yellow sticker for each one of those," Patterson said. "We need something, but that's not it."

Labels on the power supplies give customers a good leverage to persuade computer equipment suppliers to increase efficiency, Koomey said: "They should be leaning on the vendors, but I'm surprised how little it happens."

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