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Intel pushes denser data centres

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Intel has kicked off a campaign to make data centres more efficient and less environmentally damaging. Paradoxically, one of its key messages seems to be that companies need to refresh their servers - ie. buy new ones - more often.

On the plus side, the company is also promoting the use of server virtualisation to make systems more productive - its target for its own data centres is to increase average server utilisation by 20 per cent.

Speaking at an Intel-hosted conference on data centre design last week, Pat Gelsinger - formerly the company's CTO and now the senior VP in charge of its digital enterprise group - hammered the "older IT wastes power" angle.

He said Intel's own experience was that it could save both power and space in its data centres - it has some 140 of them, around the world - by consolidating existing systems onto more capable new hardware using server virtualisation.

Dan Costello, a director of Intel's own IT operation, added that the chip maker's experience showed it was best to make data centres as dense as possible - it is aiming for 15kW per cabinet. As well as reducing the floor area needed, it means less empty space to light and cool, simplifies airflow management, and cuts power transmission losses by having shorter cable runs.

He said bladeservers offer even greater efficiency because the servers share fans, backplanes and power supplies, with all their associated energy inefficiencies.

"A six year-old server takes up valuable resources that could be better used, so we have accelerated our refresh rate," he said. "Refreshing one data centre gave us three times the performance for only four per cent more space utilised. Power is now the limiting factor."

A new dual-core Xeon server provides 40 per cent more performance than a Pentium III equivalent while consuming 40 per cent less power, Gelsinger noted, adding: "Consolidation delivers efficiency - many servers were typically older and under-utilised.

"A dual-processor server is around 300W, fully loaded. The question is how much performance you can deliver within that thermal envelope. Over one year we have delivered four times the performance inside the same power envelope."

He added that the move to 45nm with the upcoming Penryn Core2 processors would bring yet more compute power per Watt. It allows them to have higher clock speeds and greater transistor density than the current 65nm versions, but for the same thermal budget.

As well as its applied research into more efficient data centres - it even has a design centre under construction in Israel that will use its data centre as the main source of heating for the building - Intel is also involved in developing benchmarks for measuring a server's energy efficiency, Gelsinger said.

However, he admitted that there are a lot of factors outside its control, especially what happens to older servers that get retired. It's one thing to factor in the cost of decommissioning, but if the scrap ends up polluting Africa, India, or China, the environmental benefit of buying new servers could be less than it looks.

Plus, the processor has become a smaller proportion of a server's total power budget - for example, current Woodcrest Xeons consume 65W versus 110W for the earlier Irwindale generation. So it becomes harder for Intel to enable further significant power savings, and the memory, power supply and hard disk designers have to shoulder more responsibility. ®

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