Google to share power-efficiency secrets

While Google Inc. made a big splash this week over its willingness to share its power-efficiency secrets, the online giant is actually wading into a larger industrywide power-saving movement.

The issue is that power usage by PCs and servers historically has not been very efficient on several fronts. Billions of dollars in wasted energy hangs in the balance, and that is money that computer users and corporations can take to the bank, experts say.

"I have been around computer energy issues for years, and there is a disconnect between those who pay the energy bill and get the benefits of savings and those who have control over equipment that draws the energy," says Kent Dunn, senior program manager at 80 Plus. He says IT shops sharing in the savings benefits will provide incentives to move to power-efficient machines.

The 80 Plus initiative is an electric utility-funded incentive program to integrate more energy-efficient power supplies into desktop computers and servers. Manufacturers that adopt the 80 Plus specification get money back from utilities when they sell machines into that utilities region. 80 Plus, which has some $5 million in its coffers, plans to announce its first major manufacturing partner in the coming weeks, Dunn says.

And he says he hopes Google will bring visibility to the issue, having proved that energy efficiency is really just a code word for cost savings.

Google estimates that if its internally developed power-efficiency technology, which Google uses in its server farms, were deployed in 100 million PCs running for an average of eight hours per day, it would save 40 billion kilowatt-hours over three years, or more than $5 billion at California's energy rates.

The technology does not force IT to change anything in its environment other than buy power-efficient machines during normal upgrades.

Google distinguished engineer Luiz Barroso presented the company's findings and articulated a solution during this week's Intel Developer Forum.

"There are several hard technical problems surrounding power efficiency of computers, but we've found one that is actually not particularly challenging and could have a huge impact on the energy used by home computers and low-end servers: increasing power supply efficiency," Barroso wrote on the Google blog.

The problem today is that power supplies for PCs and servers convert alternating current from the outlet to direct current needed by the machine and typically waste 30% to 45% of their input power, according to a white paper authored by Google engineers Urs Hoelzle and Bill Weihl.

Over the years, Google has developed power supplies that run at 90% efficiency.

"We're sharing a [power supply] design that saves energy, and we're hoping the industry can move to adopt something similar as a standard," says Google spokesman Barry Schnitt.

The current problems lie in outdated power designs for computers.

When PCs were first introduced, power supplies provide multiple voltages to satisfy the needs of the PC's internal chip. With modern-day machines, that is no longer the case. Google is now proposing a PC standard, which it uses for its server farm. The server farm uses a simple 12-volt power supply. Motherboard components generated via voltage regulator modules handle other voltages needed by the machine.

Google says the changes will add about $20 to the price of the power supply, but it will be offset with cost savings.

The company understands that it is wading into an area that has active initiatives, such as 80 Plus, which Google thinks is complementary to its work.

"We've recently reached out to them and look forward to exploring ways we may be able to work together to promote more energy efficient computers," Google's Schnitt says.

He says Google has also been talking to many vendors and groups across the industry to foster collaboration. The company has started a feedback loop at efficient-psu@google.com.

Dunn, at 80 Plus, says that while power supply changes are easy to make and for IT to adopt, even more cost savings live in power management technology, such as software developed by Verdiem Corp.

The company, which develops power management software called Surveyor, designed to cut IT power consumption by managing power options of individual computers from a central location.

Earlier this month, Verdiem was awarded a contract by the state of Washington's Department of Information Services, and Surveyor is already running in several Washington State school districts. Those districts are expecting to cut energy consumption on average by approximately 200kW per PC per year for a savings of thousands of dollars.

"Network power management savings can be double or triple what you get with the efficient power supplies" that Google is talking about, Dunn says. In combination, he says that the two things could virtually eliminate energy waste in PCs. "In the aggregate, we are talking about extremely big dollar savings."

And the savings can extend beyond just energy.

Verdiem CEO Kevin Klustner says his company has relationships with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, which provide rebates to users who deploy the Verdiem software.

"The payback covers a fair amount of the list price for users that install it," Klustner says. "And this is not an invasive way to wring out cost savings."

Surveyor is priced at $20 per seat, and Klustner said a typical installation will pay for itself in 12 to 18 months. "This allows the IT group to stand up and say we are saving energy and saving money."

This story, "Google to share power-efficiency secrets" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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