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Hardware Makers Powering Down

Producers of chips and servers are looking for new ways to boost energy efficiency.

The market has rewarded computer servers that are energy efficient, as

Advanced Micro Devices'

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recent gains with its Opteron microprocessor attests.

So it's only natural that the world's largest server and microprocessor companies took up the mantle of energy efficiency on Tuesday, at an event organized by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The hardware makers mapped out the next steps in the quest to redesign computers so that they consume less power, though the talk was less about how to save the planet than how to save money on the growing energy bills plaguing corporations.

Not surprisingly,

Sun Microsystems

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and AMD, which have both banged on the power-efficiency drum in recent months, were front and center, delivering keynote speeches (Sun hosted the event at its conference facility in Santa Clara, Calif.). But


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were also among the tech firms slated to participate in the event.

The goal of the two-day conference, according to the EPA, is to highlight the growing energy demands of today's high-density enterprise servers and to figure out ways to address the problem.

Sun Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos pointed to the automobile industry's miles-per-gallon metric as an example that the high-tech industry might want to consider. There's a great value in adopting a single metric, Papadopoulos said, as it provides a simple, easy-to-understand yardstick for both buyers and manufacturers.

"Engineers love to get those metrics," he said. "If I go to our engineering teams here and say 'Here's what we need to optimize for,' you will unleash lots of creativity -- because that's the art of engineering."

But before such a metric can be devised, Papadopoulos and other speakers noted that the industry had to hash out which of the various measurements and benchmarks measuring performance and power consumption made the most sense.

Papadopoulos also said the issue of power consumption had become serious enough that computer makers will have to work alongside data center companies to design systems holistically. "I think there's going to be a big trend to co-design," said Papadopoulos, citing features like liquate and air cooling of server racks.

"You can't just look at a box. You've got to look at the implication of the whole system," said Papadopoulos.

Many of the speakers at the conference described a global information economy powered by the computer equivalents of sports utility vehicles -- brawny, inefficient machines that consume much more power than necessary. As corporations pack more servers into their data centers, and with energy prices rising, the total cost of ownership has become a serious consideration for server buyers today.

According to Vernon Turner of industry research firm IDC, the total amount of money spent on servers will remain virtually flat for the next several years, as the advent of industry-standard technology commoditizes the business. But the number of servers sold is increasing by about 4.9 million every year, he noted.

Chipmakers face increasing challenges as they push forward to advanced processors that feature smaller circuits, such as the 45-nanometer-based processors expected in the next few years. As the width of the circuits is shrunk, the processor leaks more heat, making the chip less power efficient.

AMD's Ben Williams, VP of commercial business microprocessor solutions, said the company was looking at new materials that might reduce this leakage, but acknowledged that there isn't an answer to the challenge at this point. Many of the tricks used to conserve power in chips designed for battery-operated, portable devices might also migrate to the server side, said Williams.

When asked by an audience member why chipmakers continue to shrink circuit size, given the inherent inefficiencies and the fact that many corporate customers don't even fully utilize the microprocessor muscle they have, Williams said there were many factors at play.

AMD needs to continue to shrink the size of processor circuits in order to keep up with the competition and to offer customers better performance, said Williams. But, he added, "We've got to be meaningful and thoughtful about how we do that, so that it doesn't break the infrastructure we have today."