Chips and Power: Energy Savings Drive Innovation and Acquisitions in the Data Center Market

Two announcements made this month reinforce the growing importance of energy efficiency to the battle for the data center market.

First, graphics chip developer NVidia announced that it is going to take on Intel and AMD in the CPU market with a new range of products based on chip designs from ARM, the Cambridge-based company whose processors are found in many of the world’s mobile devices and smart phones. Project Denver will see NVidia build a new CPU running the ARM instruction set, which will be fully integrated on the same chip as the NVidia GPU (graphics processing unit). The new processor will support a range of products from personal computers to servers to supercomputers.

NVidia expects the RISC-based chipset to give Intel a run for its money in terms of performance and energy efficiency. NVidia is not the first company to look at the potential of ARM-based servers as an energy efficient alternative. Calxeda (formerly Smooth-Stone) is a Texas-based startup that has raised $48 million in investment funding for its ‘server-on-chip’ based on around ARM processors. NVidia’s backing offers the prospect of a speedier path to the mainstream market. ARM’s credentials as the basis for enterprise computing were further reinforced by Microsoft’s announcement that it would be supporting Windows on the ARM platform.

The use of low-power processors in high-performance configurations is not limited to ARM-based systems of course. SeaMicro, for example, is a start-up that offers a low-power, high-performance server configuration based on 512 Intel Atom low-power processors. It claims that its SM10000 server uses one-quarter the power and requires only one-quarter the space of comparable best-in-class volume servers.

Intel has done much to address the power efficiency of the CPU in recent years, managing to cap power use while doubling or tripling computing power. Further improvements to the power management capabilities are a priority for future evolutions of its products but additional competition can only provide further incentive for innovation. Energy efficiency is moving beyond nice-to-have to being a critical aspect of server technology.

Another angle on the growing importance of data center energy efficiency was provided by GE’s announcement that it is acquiring power conversion provider Lineage Power Holdings for $520 million. Lineage Power is a provider of high-efficiency AC-DC and DC-DC power conversion infrastructure for telecommunications and data centers. GE’s announcement highlighted the growth in in cloud computing and mobile internet voice, video and data applications as providing further momentum to what is already a $20 billion market.

GE’s acquisition also provides support for those advocating the energy efficiency benefits of DC power in the data center. As my colleague Mike Wapner wrote in his recent blog, there is a growing interest in the use of DC power. Telecommunications facilities have a history of using DC, where more of the equipment works on a 48V DC supply, but so far there has been little adoption for IT equipment. However, a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (DC Power for Improved Data Center Efficiency, 2007) demonstrated that direct current (DC) distribution in the data center could be up to 20 percent more efficient than AC-based setups. The investment in existing technologies and power distribution infrastructure and limited development by the main IT vendors means this is unlikely to lead to a major switch in the foreseeable future. However, backing from the likes of GE will make it more likely we will see DC used in high-performance data centers or in areas where a shift to local generation of power makes it a feasible option.

Article by Eric Woods, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

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