I recently spent time with Intel hearing about its product and development roadmap for the next few years. Given that what Intel is thinking now decides the computer platforms on which we will be running much of our business in five years’ time, its view of the future carries more weight than most. It was somewhat gratifying therefore to hear that the direction we have outlined for the evolution of the green data center still looks correct. However, there were also additional insights into the new challenges facing data centers in the years to come.
On the server side, the pattern looks similar to recent years. Overall we will continue to see significant growth in bang per watt. Massive improvements in performance in recent generations of processor technology have opened the door to server consolidation and virtualization. Moore’s Law will continue to drive progress in terms of processing power and in processor efficiency. At the same time, further improvements in power management will help cap the power consumption of those servers. Intel will continue to extend the granularity of control available over power consumption of the processor. As new tools emerge to take advantage of these features, power management should become a common feature of the data center.
I wrote back in January about the growing interest in using large arrays of less powerful processors – like Intel’s Atom – for building more energy efficient servers. Intel’s approach is generally supportive of this strategy, where appropriate. That’s an important caveat. Intel is working hard to fill the gaps between the option for low power, low energy consumption processors, and high end, high power consumption options. It is not, however, a question of making this a binary choice but rather of extending the spectrum of options, so making it easier to choose the most appropriate balance between processor power and power consumption. When considering which is better, you have to ask, “Better for what?” For homogenous workloads that suit large scale parallel processing, the use of an array of low-end processors may well make sense. However, for heterogeneous workloads, a mainstream server processor like the Intel’s Xeon will still prove more energy efficient. The evolution of the processors as spelt out by Intel would see the gap between low-end, low-energy and high-end, high-energy options narrowed by improvements in the power of Atom processor and continuing improvements in the energy efficiency of the Xeon family. This should increase the options available and enable greater flexibility in choosing the right server architecture for the job.
Other discussions with the Intel experts reinforced the notion that storage and networking are the next areas of the data center ripe for energy optimization. One sign of how important Intel sees this development is that it has now integrated its storage and networking teams into its data center group. Better support for virtualization of the underlying infrastructure, in order to remove bottlenecks, and increased efficiency are the common elements of the strategy.
These developments all presume that cloud-based models will be increasingly accepted as the default mode of operation for data centers. But that doesn’t mean we have a settled view of the challenges ahead. Some of the most interesting discussions during the event covered the impact of the Ínternet of Things on the data center. Estimates for the number of intelligent devices on the global network over the next decade range from tens of billions to a trillion. What is not in doubt is that data centers will be supporting a vastly different client community in the coming years. Indeed the impact is already being felt. As we go to press, Intel reported a record set of quarterly results, with its Data Center Group showing a whopping 32 percent increase on 2010. This resurgence in data center investments partly reflects the growing demand to support a widening range of smart devices and cloud-based services.
As well as the inevitable further growth in data volumes this implies, it also raises new challenges in terms of flexibility, scalability, and security. This is not just about supporting smart phone clients. Smart devices in buildings, transport systems, homes and the power grid, for example, will drive the use of real-time data analysis and two-way communication across the network to support automated response systems. In turn this will put more pressure on data centers in terms of processing power and the adaptability of the infrastructure. Virtualization, cloud computing, and the drive toward energy efficiency are already re-shaping our concept of the data center. We also need to start thinking about how our data centers will support billions of new client devices.
Article by Eric Woods, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.