Power in the data center: Can it drive disruption?

With power accounting for between 30 and 50 percent of functional operating costs in a data center, power consumption is on everyone’s mind. So much so that at semiconductor conference Hotchips on Friday, Intel and AMD, two companies that have long competed around processor performance, spent hours discussing the power-efficiency attributes of their respective Sandy Bridge and Bulldozer chips. The future is not about performance. It’s about performance per watt. It’s about building a data center that uses less power, lowers operating costs and leaves a smaller carbon footprint. And drivers are emerging that indicate that the semiconductor and server markets, the lifeblood of the data center, are open to disruption.

Enter the disruptors: Calxeda, Tilera and SeaMicro. These are companies with new ideas about how to build low-power servers, and Calxeda and Tilera want to build those servers on non-x86 architectures. Unseating Intel and AMD on the microprocessor side and HP, Dell and IBM on the server manufacturer side is a feat. But here are a few drivers already in place.

Cloudy weather

Disruption in a market begins with an opening, and for the data center, the opening is cloud computing. Both the public and private cloud sectors are experiencing compound annual growth rates in the 20 percent range, with IDC estimating that public-cloud revenue alone will be $29.5 billion by 2014. This matters because cloud computing typically involves the same applications running across thousands of servers. LinkedIn, Facebook and Google require a small set of tasks running at high volume, compared to traditional enterprise, where multiple applications demand high performance.

The move toward cloud computing helps the disruptors because low-power processors, which rely on packing multiple cores running in parallel on one microchip, lend themselves to these types of high-volume, lower-performance applications. Amazon, for example, doesn’t need all of its servers to be high-performing processors capable of running processor-intensive single-thread applications. Facebook can afford to experiment with processor configurations and is doing exactly that with Tilera’s Linux-based processors. These moves are indicative of how experimental and aggressive the big cloud players are in their quest to lower power consumption.

Purchasing power is shifting

Purchasing power is becoming concentrated among a handful of huge buyers. Facebook’s Open Compute project, for example, highlights how the major buyers want increasing control over how the data center is built. Intel and HP used to control the supply chain and the options available to customers. But for companies like Facebook or Google, engineering a first-in-class server and data center is a core competency upon which they build their business models. Why would they want to turn that control over to Dell or HP? Particularly if power consumption is a major concern.

SeaMicro sees a point of entry there. It manufactures servers packed with dual-core, low-power Intel Atom processors and has spent $40 million developing a fabric chip that shrinks the size of a server by over 80 percent, allowing data centers to be smaller and more power efficient. Its servers are deployed at Skype and France Telecom. Companies like SeaMicro have the potential to be a dual headache for traditional players like Intel and HP. SeaMicro has no processor allegiance and no qualms about building a server with ARM- or Linux-based chips. Also, it is far more nimble than HP or Dell and can turn around a server configuration in 12 weeks, which opens up the possibility of larger cloud customers dictating what they need in a next-generation server.

Taken to the level of the semiconductor, companies like ARM with experience designing chips for specific mobile uses might be able to design custom chips for major server customers. That’s a massive shift from the Intel model, where one chip requires a multiyear life cycle and has to work in a variety of computing environments. The push for power-efficient servers is driving the change.

Last week, Canonical announced that the next release of Ubuntu, due in October, would support ARM. In making the announcement, Canonical’s VP of OEM services, Chris Kenyon, noted, “Power is the binding constraint in building data centers.” Awareness of the issue of power is accelerating among those who drive both software and hardware development.

To be fair, we are a long ways from an ARM- or Linux-based server world, but Intel and AMD would be smart not to assume that “everything’s fine.” The cloud-computing market share will grow as legacy enterprise applications phase out. As Tilera’s Omid Tahernia quipped at Structure in June, about a different market, “I was at Motorola when we owned 62 percent market share on cell phones.” Today Motorola has just 9 percent of the global cell phone market. The world can change quickly.

Question of the week

Will Calxeda, Tilera and SeaMicro unseat traditional players like HP and Intel in the semiconductor and server markets?

The opportunities for the Internet and clean power

As the digital world and connected devices take over more and more aspects of people’s lives large Internet companies are becoming more and more conscious of the need to invest in clean power and alternative resources.

For the energy of the Internet, look to the end devices

A common misperception is that the bulk of the energy consumption associated with the Internet and connected-computing comes from massive data centers. In reality, the billions of end devices — computers, set-top-boxes — are currently the bigger and more wasteful culprits.