IBM's Plan to Slash Massive Power Needs


IBM, the granddaddy of computing, uses 5 billion kilowatt hours to power its data center operations each year. But over the next three years, Big Blue is attempting to double its compute capability without budging the needle on its power consumption. It’s already well on its way in the $1 billion effort, but its seemingly moderate goals point to the difficulty of trying to make computing green.

IBM, which hosts computing operations for itself and external customers, needs more compute power because more applications and entities are demanding it. It’s kind of like buying a hybrid car and doubling your commute. You may consumer less gas per mile, but your energy expenditure remains the same.

So how is IBM handling this problem for itself and for its customers? Rich Lechner, VP of enterprise systems, says the company is attending to the power costs in the three key areas of its business. On the software side last year IBM added updates to its power management programs and its Tivoli systems management software. The updates can be used to reduce power as well as see ways hardware can be more efficiently configured to conserve power. The company is also taking a look at its software code to see if it can be trimmed to run without taxing a processor as much as older software can.

On the hardware side, IBM is focusing on more power efficient chips. It is also designing chips with air pockets for cooling or using water to cool chips, such as in its Hydro-Cluster supercomputer. Water can be used to cool heat dissipated from server racks, which IBM employs in the iDataPlex products announced this week. These sort of tricks should reduce heat coming from servers and cut down on the amount of air conditioning a data center requires.

On the services and consulting side, IBM is helping clients reduce their data center footprints by using server consolidation, improving the layout of the racks in the data center, and other power-saving techniques. IBM also has a hardware recovery program that recycles older equipment. Leichner says IBM spends $100 million a year designing its products to be more recyclable and recycling them. Last year about half of the internal parts in IBM servers were comprised of recycled plastics. The company also recycled 1 billion pounds of equipment last year and currently accepts 40,000 devices for recycling every week.

Tied into its recycling efforts is a program to re-use defective wafers that have gone through the etching process to produce chips. IBM invented a machine that clears the etching from the silicon and renders it useful for solar manufacturing. Little of what IBM is doing is as exciting as placing a solar array on its rooftop, but its efforts are bearing fruit. Lechner points to a server consolidation project that will take 3,900 servers and replace them with 33 mainframes, resulting in a power savings of 120MW hours.

Like many human activities, computing isn’t ever going to be environmentally harmless, but efforts by IBM and its customers are aimed at making the transfer and processing of bits and bytes as sustainable as possible. As a technology writer who wants her daughter to live in a world with polar bears, I would really like to see efforts like these succeed.

photo from IBM


Jason Stoons

On the hardware side, IBM is focusing on more power efficient chips. It is also designing chips with air pockets for cooling or using water to cool chips …

Years ago, like the late 70s, I heard there was a saying at IBM that went, “If it don’t drink, it don’t think” meaning liquid cooling was essential for a really powerful computer. The microprocessor was just making its mark …

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