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Energy Efficiency Guide: Processors and Servers

Data Center Efficiency Guide: Purchasing servers is a key factor in making data centers more cost-effective and energy efficient. Chip makers have made significant strides in improving the energy efficiency of their processors, and new vendors are building servers based on low-power processors originally developed for the mobile market.

Low Energy, High Power: A Tilera multicore chip (left) and a 10U server from SeaMicro (right).

The growth of power bills has been a major factor prompting data center operators to make their facilities more energy efficient. Although spending on power has soared for many companies, it's still not the largest percentage of data center cost. Server hardware accounts for about 57 percent of the cost of operating a data center, according to research from James Hamilton at Amazon.

Thus, purchasing servers is one of the most important factors in making data centers more cost-effective and energy efficient. The good news:  Chip makers Intel and AMD have made significant strides in improving the energy efficiency of their processors, and new vendors are building servers based on low-power processors initially designed for mobile devices, including Intel's Atom and the ARM chips that power the iPhone.

This has had a major impact on the math behind server refresh cycles. While the economic downturn has been tough on capital spending, newer servers offer the ability to simultaneously boost power and reduce energy use, making it easier to cost-justify investment in new equipment. Here's a look at the processor-level energy gains and how they are improving the energy efficiency for servers.


Intel has boosted its focus on energy efficiency, highlighting its new 32-nanometer Core processor (Sandy Bridge), which features a new microarchitecture that combines visual and 3-D graphics technology with microprocessors on a single chip. There are also a number of implementations of servers using Intel's low-power Atom processors, originally designed for use in netbooks and mobile applications. Microsoft put together a rack of Atom servers that used a tenth of the power of traditional processors, including major gains in energy consumption when the servers are idle. One of the first commercial innovations on the Atom platform comes from server startup SeaMicro, which last year unveiled a multi-core x86 server that can pack 512 Atom CPUs into a 10U server, providing the option to fit as many as 2,048 CPUs into a single seven foot, 40U rack.


Last month AMD introduced the Opteron 6100 processor family to address rising demand for increased performance-per-dollar-per-watt for enterprise and public sector environments. New offerings include two new high efficiency (HE) low-power processors. With a 65 watt power rating, the 12 core, 1.8GHz 6166 HE model and 8 core, 2.2GHz 6132 HE model are designed for web serving, virtualization and cloud computing workloads. The new 6180 SE 2.5GHz 12-core processor targets the HPC market, or financial services and database workloads. One of the new products based on the 6100 Series that has gotten early attention is the Dell PowerEdge C6145 Server, which targets the high performance computing market.


UK-based ARM Holdings is a promising new player in the data center, as its low-power chips are making the leap from mobile devices to servers. Much of the attention inA RM server development has been focused on Austin-based startup Calxeda (previously Smooth-Stone), but the company is some ways away from a commercial launch. In the meantime, ZT Systems has begun selling and ARM-based server. A new entry to watch is Nvidia, which recently announced its Project Denver initiative to adapt ARM chips into new CPUs.

For more information on energy-efficient servers, see the federal government's Energy Star for Enterprise Servers program. The EPA says that servers thatearn the Energy Star rating will be 30 percent more energy efficient than older servers - and sometimes more. "A recent set of tests conducted jointly by US EPA, HP, and Microsoft demonstrate that replacing an older server with a new ENERGY STAR-qualified model will save energy and deliver more processing power in the bargain," the EPA notes. "In some of these tests, the new ENERGY STAR server consumed 54% less power than older model servers" Go to this page and you'll find the Energy Star servers listed in two spreadsheets.

See part one of this series, Energy Efficiency Guide: Assessment. Watch for additional installments incoming days at this page:

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