US feds kick in funny money for green data centers

Helping IT vendors help themselves

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The US Department of Energy, which probably has the highest electric bill on the planet thanks to its many supercomputing laboratories, has ponied up $47m to help make data centers and telecommunications facilities more energy efficient.

Rather than doing research directly, Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration, says the DOE is kicking in funds pulled from last year's $787bn American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to push along efforts underway in the private sector to help make data centers more efficient and get them to market faster.

Focusing on IT is important because of the growing energy demands that data centers are making on the power grid. Chu said that data centers and telecom facilities consume around 120 billion kilowatt-hours of juice, and that in the United States, the growth in data center processing, storage, and networking capacity would require the building of two new power plants every year for the foreseeable future unless something changes.

"I have said many times before that we need a new industrial revolution," Chu explained. "We look at energy efficiency as some of the lowest-hanging fruit that we can pluck."

Chu added that if the technologies being developed under the funded projects were used in production, they would result in some 400 billion BTUs per year of energy being saved - enough to power around 2 million homes in the United States. And yes, Chu maddeningly shifted from kilowatt-hours to BTUs, but if I did my math right, it works out to 117.2 million kilowatt-hours. We are going to have to do better than that.

The $47m that Chu has committed to 14 projects is backed up by another $70m in private funding coming from the companies engaging in the research. As you might expect, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, the two biggest IT players in the world, received big portions of the funding, but SeaMicro, Yahoo, Columbia University, Alcatel-Lucent, Edison Materials, and Power Assure got bags of money too.

The DOE funding comes in three separate bags: one for tweaks to systems and software to lower energy usage, another for re-engineering of the power supply chain in data centers, and the last for work on cooling systems. In a conference call with journalists, Chu was vague about how the DOE decided what projects to fund, but he said that it used normal processes to make its awards - whatever that means when you are referring to the government and its money.

SeaMicro - a Silicon Valley startup backed by Khosla Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Crosslink Capital that is working on what it mysteriously calls "data center appliances" - nabbed $9.3m from Uncle Sam to field test a new kind of system that plunks "hundreds of low-power processors" into a single server. According to the document put out by the DOE describing the awards, the SeaMicro system that is in development has a work and sleep mode and will cut power consumption by about 75 per cent compared to traditional servers.

The careers page at the very skinny SeaMicro Web site, says the company is looking for a senior QA engineer for "designing, automating, and executing test plans for a complex datacenter appliance," and needs BSD and Linux software engineers with embedded systems backgrounds too.

As you can see from these patent applications, SeaMicro is working on a system that incorporates hardware-based virtualization that employs a direct interconnect fabric to mesh together system components. The word on the street last fall is that SeaMicro was cramming 80 of Intel's Atom chips into a single chassis.

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