Energy usage benchmark may help IT buyers find greener servers

SPEC releases vendor-backed test suite for measuring power consumption of systems

Standard Performance Evaluation Corp. (SPEC), a nonprofit company that creates performance benchmarks widely used by server vendors, has released a test suite designed to enable system buyers to comparison-shop on the basis of energy efficiency.

SPEC's power measurement benchmark effort involved the top server makers as well as both Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., the leading vendors of x86 microprocessors. If the same companies that helped develop the benchmark actually use it, IT managers will be able to compare the energy efficiency of servers across product lines from different vendors.

The new benchmark, formally known as SPECpower_ssj2008, was announced last week. That met a vow made by SPEC officials last summer that the test suite would be ready before year's end.

The authors of the benchmark said in a detailed report about its methodology (download PDF) that the test suite responds to a shift in thinking about hardware buying priorities by many corporate users. "The result is that in a growing number of cases, 'satisfactory performance at lower energy cost' may be a better business answer than 'always the best performance possible,'" they wrote.

In delivering the benchmark now, the IT industry is also jumping ahead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is developing its own Energy Star rating for servers as part of a program for reducing the use of electricity within data centers. The SPEC and EPA initiatives aren't necessarily competing efforts, though: the federal agency and IT vendors have been collaborating on data center energy usage issues since last year.

Klaus-Dieter Lange, a senior performance engineer at Hewlett-Packard Co. who heads the SPEC subcommittee that developed the new benchmark, said he expects the EPA's Energy Star rating to be similar to what SPEC has developed. "I think they will adapt what we came up with," Lange said, adding that HP is already using the benchmark on its servers.

The other vendors that took part in developing the energy efficiency benchmark through Warrenton, Va.-based SPEC include Dell Inc., Fujitsu Siemens Computers, IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc.

According to SPEC officials, the benchmark initially uses a Java-based application workload that is intended to "exercise" a server's CPU, caches, memory and other system components. The test suite measures power consumption at capacity utilization rates ranging from idle state to 100% of system resources.

Participants in the development effort acknowledge that the benchmark will have to be expanded to include other types of workloads, such as database activities. The current test routine is "the first of many other workloads that need to follow," said Brent Kerby, product marketing manager for AMD's Opteron processors.

But even though the SPEC benchmark only covers one kind of server workload at this point, "up until now, we have had nothing" to compare the energy consumption of different systems, said Jonathan Koomey, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has been advising the EPA on data center energy issues. "Having real, measured data is a vast step forward," Koomey said.

According to a study by Koomey, whose findings were cited in a report that the EPA submitted to Congress earlier this year, servers worldwide consumed about 123 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2005. By 2010, the study said, that figure is expected to rise by 76% to 216 billion kilowatt hours, with most of the growth coming from countries in the Asia-Pacific region, where coal is widely used to generate electricity.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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