Server Farming

Oct 29 2008   9:02PM GMT

How Energy Star could slow down Moore’s Law

Mark Fontecchio Mark Fontecchio Profile: Mark Fontecchio

The EPA’s plan to slap Energy Star stickers on servers could slow down Moore’s Law, at least temporarily.

I’m talking here about the economic portion of Moore’s Law rather than the technological portion. Chips will likely continue to shrink, and more and more processing power will be put onto smaller and smaller spaces. At the system level, you will continue to see the amount of server power (and by power I mean processing capability) per 1U of rack space increase.

But the economic effect of Moore’s Law — that the processing power gets cheaper and cheaper because of the natural competition in the marketplace — could see a hit due to Energy Star. Processing will continue to get cheaper, but perhaps not at the same rate as before. Or, at least, there will be a blip following the Energy Star implementation when the economic effect of Moore’s Law slows down.

Let’s take a look. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is working on implementing an Energy Star specification on servers in the same way it has them for washing machines, ceiling fans, and personal computers. Currently the EPA Energy Star program is digesting comments from a second draft for servers that came out this summer. The Energy Star label would immediately tell users how much energy each server uses, with the hope that vendors would start competing on energy efficiency.

If you go into your local Lowe’s or Sears, you’ll see how it works. Each appliance has a yellow sticker attached to it that tells you approximately how many kilowatt-hours (kwh) the appliance consumes, and approximately how much that translates into an annual cost of operation. If you want to check out qualified refrigerators and freezers (meaning 20% more efficient than federal standards), you can just go to the Energy Star website on refrigerators and freezers, or look for a special Energy Star approved sticker on the appliance itself.

So the idea for servers is the same — check out the Energy Star website and buy accordingly. The idea is to get server vendors competing with one another on energy efficiency. Which will probably happen.

But here’s the kicker — when the Energy Star program is implemented, won’t those vendors charge a premium for those servers that qualify under Energy Star? I think so. And that’s where Moore’s Law takes a hit. The cost of server processing capability per 1U of rack space won’t increase as much as before the Energy Star program, because of that premium.

Is this all ado about nothing? Well, maybe a little. After the hit — however long it takes — the economic effect of Moore’s Law will kick back in. But what about before the hit? Well, before the hit, users out there can do the energy consumption measurements and comparisons on their own without worrying about any sort of Energy Star premium.

I thought of this while sitting in the last session of Data Center Decisions in Chicago, with Ken Brill of The Uptime Institute talking about the Energy Star specification with about a dozen users. He, along with many others, have also stressed the need for data centers to start measuring their energy consumption. If they haven’t already, users should also start looking at the energy consumption of the servers they’re buying, if that matters to them at all. The information is available. If it’s not listed in the server specs sheet online, the vendor or VAR should be able to provide it.

In other words, if you’re eagerly awaiting an Energy Star specification so you can start buying servers based on energy efficiency, just do it now on your own. It will probably cost you less.

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