Friday, October 16, 2009

The Coming Low Power Revolution

Change is in the air and it’s going to permeate everything we do. This change has to do with power. Unlike many important changes in society, this revolution is all about having less power, not more.

We’re in the midst of an interesting dilemma. Our information society is driven by leveraging technology to improve productivity. We’re expected to do more will fewer resources. Well, at least with resources of the human variety. What substitutes for head count is processor count. Even in our personal lives, we expect to be in constant communication via cell phone conversations, email and text messaging. Electronics is giving us more and more opportunities, but at a price. The price isn’t so much in device cost as it is in additional power consumption.

A generation ago we used reference books. It takes a certain amount of energy to write a book, print and distribute it. But after that it uses no power to sit on the shelf or when someone is flipping through the pages. Now when we need to know something, we access the Web. The PC takes a certain amount of energy to build and ship it. But it also takes an ongoing amount of energy to keep it active. It’s using power when you type and read the screen. But it also uses power while it sits there on your desk waiting for input. Not only that, but the servers that actually hold the information you are seeking are also using electricity while they wait for inquiries.

The tradeoff is the constant energy supply required for instant access to dynamic databases with up to date information versus the low energy approach of slower access to resources that may not have been updated in years. As we transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture to industry and then information technology, humanity has always opted to expend more energy to gain more productivity and a higher quality of life.

That’s about to change. Not that the universe is running out of energy. There’s plenty available. But cheap energy, particularly that energy made cheap by hidden subsidies and ignoring environmental and social consequences, is going away. Last year’s gasoline price shocks won’t be the last. Climate change abatement worldwide is going to drive hydrocarbon fuel sources out of business. We’re going to enter an era where Watts are precious and not to be frittered away haphazardly.

Does this mean that we’re all going back to the sod house and the plow? Not much chance of that, even if we could stand it. There’s too many of us to homestead the prairie now. We won’t have to give up our urban technology lifestyle, but we will have to provide it differently. We’re going to need to reduce our energy draw while we push for even greater business and personal productivity and convenience.

You see this starting now, with a push for LED and compact fluorescent lighting to replace incandescent bulbs. LEDs as backlights offer a major energy savings for computer monitors and television sets. Why? A fluorescent backlight is on all the time even when a largely dark image is being displayed. LEDs can turn on and off so fast that they only need to be energized where brightness is needed. This technology is just emerging, but it’s the sort of thinking we’ll have to get used to when designing new products. How about those OLED screens and electronic paper? They started out as ways to save battery power. They may be pressed into service on desktops to save AC power.

Most of us heavily involved in information technology or the Internet aren’t about to give up our computing resources until they pry them from our cold dead server racks. But the amount of power needed to expand the Web is no laughing matter. Google is locating at least some of its new server farms near hydroelectric plants to guarantee power availability. Have you been in a room full of server racks or even banks of PCs lately? Toasty isn’t it. That heat is a byproduct of the way we do processing. More GHz and Gbps means more kilowatts.

But this paradigm of computing is changing. IC vendors have stopped cranking up processor clocks in favor of multiplying the number of lower power cores on the processor chip. My new iMac runs cooler than my old PC even though it has several times the processing power. If the additional throughput had been obtained using the older design processes, I’d be cooked right out of this office if not deafened by the cooling fan.

One of the coolest new products, literally, is the “server in a wall-wart” as presented by the Marvell ShevaPlug. It has a GigE LAN connection, a 1.2 GHz CPU with a half-gig each of RAM and ROM, and USB I/O. All this for a 2 Watt power draw. This is the type of design thinking that we’re headed for. Hardware may well become even more sophisticated as it manages power consumption the way it optimizes memory and processing resources today. When power is the limiting resource, that’s where the focus will be.

Reducing power consumption offers a double benefit. First, you lessen the direct energy draw of the device. But you also reduce the cooling requirements, as all electronics generates heat as an unwanted byproduct of operation. This may be trivial in a digital watch, but it’s huge in a colocation center where roof mounted air conditioners run year round to deal with the heat generated by rack after rack of servers. Less heat means less electricity to cool the equipment. It is, indeed, a double savings.

Combine lower power designs with smarter equipment that knows when it isn’t being used and shuts down to a barely-alive sleep mode and the power savings can easily multiply. That includes an environment that detects the presence of the user and shuts off room lights as well as powering down workstations and peripherals. The result not only benefits the environment, but it greens the bottom line as well. And in Wall Street terms, “green is good!”

I hope you've enjoyed our series of articles on technology and the environment, posted in support of Blog Action Day 2009 - Climate Change. This issue is so important that we will regularly report and comment on what is happening with green energy developments, a more efficient use of energy, and how you can save money for yourself and your business by being more energy savvy. In case you missed some of this week's offerings and are curious to read them, here is a list of what we presented:

Monday: Blog Action Day For A Less Toasty Tomorrow.

Tuesday: The Green Energy Fairy Tale Is Real.

Wednesday: Every Home And Business Is A Battery.

Thursday: Banish Vampires To Reduce Global Warming.

Follow Telexplainer on Twitter