Intel fills green software gap
Who ya gonna call?
Everyone agrees that green computing is a great idea. Well, everyone but software makers.
Last month, OpenEco's Energy Camp 2008 focused on traditional environmental issues - such as sustainable energy - it also touched on the role of IT. Concern about the carbon emissions of power stations powering Second Life servers was balanced by the possibilities for raising awareness through social networking.
Soon after, Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs made sure he emphasised Apple's green credentials when he announced the Macintosh Air. And every time Reg Developer tackles green software and the green datacenter, readers say much the same thing: Something must be done to make computing more power efficient.
And yet it doesn't seem like companies in the software sector have any interest in taking the lead. We have found few serious initiatives to promote the cause of more efficient - and, therefore, greener - software. It's been the systems and hardware companies that are making the headlines, such as Dell at last year's Oracle OpenWorld
To that end, it's chip giant Intel that's stood out as the only high-profile IT vendor looking for ways to improve software development to further the green cause.
Helping lead Intel's work is Bob Steigerwald, the engineering manager for the Software Solutions Group (SSG), appointed the company's green guru last year. His brief is to look at ways software vendors can reduce the power consumption their products require. "We started looking at this about six months ago and we have been doing a lot of experimentation and we are now working on tools to evaluate software performance," Steigerwald said.
Intel has been looking at how to improve battery life with efficient software since 2002. The new initiative, though, looks at other issues such as how to make software "power aware".
"There is a much bigger energy saving perspective now with companies like ourselves and Google looking at how we can run more efficient datacenters. The focus has been very much on hardware - but we think software efficiencies can make a big contribution too," Steigerwald said.
An example of this is the tickless idle feature introduced in Linux lat year, which Steigerwald said demonstrated how a simple change to an important piece of software can make a real difference.
"The older Linux kernel used to be on constant alert but with tickless idle it only wakes up when there is an interrupt or when it is expecting something to happen. The Less Watts project has shown some pretty good energy savings using this with the PowerTop tool."
PowerTop can identify the components that are using resources inefficiently so that areas for improvement may be identified.
Measurement of power efficiency is not a straightforward goal, though. Tests of Intel- and AMD- based servers by Neal Nelson Associates showed, for example, that the way memory buffers are used can effect power consumption.
Other areas Steigerwald and his team have identified in a preliminary paper on energy-efficient software include better multi-threading strategies and improvements to DVD playback.
"We have spoken to DVD vendors and the gaming community about how we can reduce the power demands of these devices. We have had some success in areas such as reducing the frame rate and better use of caching," Steigerwald said.
What is slightly odd about Intel's work is that it should be a hardware company taking the lead in this increasingly important area. Leading software companies - those who one would expect to be pushing forward with efficient software - are, with one exception, conspicuous by their absence. Steigerwald noted that he has spoken to Adobe Systems on the issue.
The other half of the once great Wintel alliance, Microsoft, is among those absent. "There are no indications that Microsoft is doing any thing - my group does not have a relationship with Microsoft," Steigerwald said.
Considering the prevalence of Windows running on Intel you'd think there was ample room to improve the way its operating systems talk to the underlying hardware, to reduce the amount of resource consumption.
To be fair, Microsoft has made some moves in the direction of energy efficiency through its participation in the Energy Star programme. It is also possible to configure Windows Vista to improve power usage.
However, there's clearly a large part for ISVs to play. For example, application and operating system performance and tuning are subjects you frequently hear talked about, but from the perspective of user or server response times and rarely in terms of power efficiency. Yet there is a role, from designing and writing code that doesn't gamble on the availability of fatter hardware to writing smart algorithms, with some already offering their advice.
As the green bandwagon gathers speed there will be growing pressure on those developing and selling software to respond, in the same way manufacturers in other sectors of the economy are also being forced to change their ways and address green issues. As that pressure grows, today's trickle of activity is likely to turn into a torrent.®