When gas prices hit $3 a gallon, car companies talk about how fuel efficient their vehicles are. When the cost of powering and cooling a data center exceeds the price of the servers in the center, IT vendors start talking about energy efficiency.
That dynamic was at play last week at the Intel Developer Forum, where the world's largest chipmaker made "energy-efficient performance" the theme and touted cutting power consumption in its products. Google engineers speaking at the forum challenged the industry to redesign PC power supplies to cut power use and save customers billions of dollars on their electric bills.
Should have ventured off the map, Gelsinger says
"The tricky part isn't the technology," says Luiz Barroso, a distinguished engineer at Google. "The tricky part is really the ecosystem. If you want to make a change like this, you need collaboration from folks like Intel and the developer community."
Energy efficiency has become an important topic because IT managers face skyrocketing electric bills for their data centers. IBM predicts that by next year, most businesses will spend more money on electricity to power and cool their data centers than they spent on the computer systems inside them.
The "energy crisis" facing businesses and data centers was exacerbated by years of Intel turning a blind eye to the consequences of faster processors, Gartner analyst Michael Bell says. Intel was slow to understand that energy efficiency was becoming more important. For most of the past three decades, it has focused on making its processors run faster. Five years ago, Intel was predicting it would be offering 10-GHz processors by the end of the decade. "We got trapped by our own success and stayed on that megahertz and gigahertz road map for one or two product generations too long," acknowledges Pat Gelsinger, senior VP and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group.
Advanced Micro Devices "saw the fallout sooner than Intel and as a result has experienced great success," Gartner's Bell says.
Now Intel is a true believer in energy efficiency. President and chief executive Paul Otellini called Intel's processor portfolio overhaul "the most significant leap forward in energy-efficient performance" in processor history. Intel will provide a 300% increase in performance-per-watt in its processor line between now and end of the decade, Otellini said at the forum.
Intel will attempt to push the envelope in power efficiency and battery life with what it calls the Ultra Mobile PC, a small, handheld computer with a 5-inch screen. Intel promises to add an ultralow-powered processor for the UMPC in the first half of next year that will use half the power of its current mobile processor, and only one-tenth the power by 2008. Intel has a 2.5-pound, ruggedized UMPC on the drawing board for the K-12 education market.
The battle for efficiency is being fought watt by watt, says Howard David, a principal engineer in Intel's Digital Enterprise Group. "Everything counts," he says. "If we have 100 people at Intel each working on gaining 1 watt of power, it adds up."
One concern: When gas prices decline, sales of large gas guzzlers rise. The IT industry shouldn't make the same mistake as Detroit and treat energy efficiency as a passing fad.