Uh-oh! Intel and ARM both see slowdown ahead

Intel warned that its sales and capital spending would be down for the coming quarter. It’s not alone and its worries aren’t just about the PC market. ARM, Cisco and others are signaling that another tech downturn may be in the cards.

Today in Cloud

SME’s are usually reckoned to be the businesses most likely to jump onto the public cloud, but chip giant Intel sees sufficient opportunity amongst the laggards to offer a hybrid solution called AppUp which rolled out today. The solution features an on-premise hardware appliance from partners such as Lenovo, a dedicated Intel chip to manage everything, data storage in Intel’s data centers, and a monthly subscription to pay for the appliance, the storage, and some software. Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat and Don Clark at the Wall Street Journal’s Digits blog both have more, but neither seem hugely impressed. This may be the new product category that Takahashi reports Intel’s Boyd Davis suggests, but Intel will have its work cut out to clearly define a value proposition that sits comfortably between simple use of DropBox or box.net and fully-fledged enterprise cloud deployments from HP, IBM, et al. Perhaps more tellingly, can the company overcome the SME fears around security and other cloud issues that AppUp is apparently designed to address? The data is still sitting somewhere out of sight, and for some of the people AppUp’s meant for, that’s just too scary to contemplate. If Intel does too good a job of reassuring those fears, there’s less need for AppUp. If it does too poor a job, there’s less market for AppUp. Tough call.

Today in Cleantech

Everyone’s talking about Intel and SeaMicro this morning, so I thought I’d jump in with some specific energy efficiency questions. Intel has custom-designed the 64-bit, dual-core ATOM chip that goes into Santa Clara, Calif.-based SeaMicro’s new low-power, high-performance servers. That’s an unusual move for the chip giant, and industry analysts see it as a sign that Intel’s x86 architecture for commodity servers is being challenged, largely on a watts-per-performance basis, by contenders using ARM architecture and others. The march of Moore’s Law has allowed servers to get smaller and less power-hungry while pumping out more work, a trend that may well be responsible for much of the efficiency gains we’ve seen so far in the data center space. Virtualization is also playing a huge role, albeit again for reasons having less to do with energy bill savings and more with other IT related costs. Changing the physical side of the data center equation — upgrading chillers, air handlers, environmental systems and other systems — is a pricier option. But making smaller and less power-hungry servers may simply add up to more servers per square foot — and squeezing more capacity out of existing data centers is driving the early interest in server energy efficiency. Do IT energy efficiency improvements simply cancel themselves out?

Is Privacy the Achilles Heel of Cloud-Based Home Energy Management?

The cloud could make home energy management both cheap and powerful, but could privacy concerns nip that potential in the bud? Storing home energy data in the cloud means less up-front investment in microprocessors and memory for in-home devices — in other words, cheaper systems, which is what homeowners want. But that means sending private data — when people are home or on vacation, how much TV they watch and what appliances they buy — to far-off servers and data centers for processing. That may well ignite customer fears over privacy, which could lead to backlash, unless privacy is built in from the ground up.

That’s one conclusion I reached after talking last week to Intel’s Shahram Mehraban, who is working on the chip giant’s Home Energy Dashboard product. Among his comments, Mehraban said the dashboard will be powerful enough to accomplish a host of analytic and data-crunching tasks on its own — primarily to avoid complications of letting that data out of homeowners’ control.

The list of in-device tasks — things like differentiating appliances by using electrical signatures from household wiring, or devising “home” and “away” routines without customer input — aren’t unique to Intel. Other home energy management companies are working on them, and some of their in-home offerings are in the $100 to $200 range. Intel has tended to set $200 as a minimum for its system, and adding features could boost that price up even higher.

The cheapness imperative has led many startups to avoid the extra costs involved in giving their home dashboards the beefed-up computing power and memory to do complicated tasks on their own, like a computer would. Instead, startups like People Power, AlertMe, EcoFactor, Incenergy, Intamac and others are turning to cloud-based remote platforms to manage more complex, data-intensive tasks. But that means a new level of complication in protecting private data. Similar complications could arise for home energy platforms from IT giants like Google’s PowerMeter and Microsoft’s Hohm. After all, they don’t have perfect track records in dealing with customer data privacy.

The issues surrounding homeowner energy data privacy are as political — or in some cases, as psychological — as they are technical. For example, state utility commissions don’t have legal authority over third-party users of customer energy data. The only way they can enforce any privacy rules they come up with would be to force utilities to set up their own policing systems, which opens them up to costs and responsibilities they don’t want.

At the same time, it’s hard to predict how customers will react to the idea of new data being given out to third parties — even if, as is almost universally the case today, that’s happening only after customers expressly give their permission. Given the continuing backlash over smart meters, there’s probably good reason for utilities to be on their toes.

Intel isn’t the only one making moves to protect itself from future limitations on home energy data. General Electric’s Nucleus home energy hub, for example, has enough memory to store three years of energy data on its own, at a price of $149 to $199 for it, although that doesn’t include the cost of devices to interact with it.

Utility customer data privacy is emerging as a key concern for all kinds of third-party management of utility data. Examples include eMeter’s recent collaboration with Verizon to host meter data management software on the cloud, or SmartSynch’s partnership with PayGo to host prepay meter functionality, or Digi International’s cloud-based M2M smart grid networking system. Adding a lot of new privacy rules to how these new IT systems are run could add costs and complications — but privacy advocates say that preventing privacy breaches are worth the extra cost.

Question of the week

Will privacy concerns limit the adoption of cloud-based storage for home energy?