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At first glance, the startup Nicira named to our list of 50 disruptive companies this year, was not exciting to anyone not working on data center infrastructure. Yet we did so, and even profiled it at length Nicira’s technology has the potential to reinvent how the plumbing of the Internet works, with visibly faster, cheaper, and more efficient websites, apps, and more as the result.

Now server software giant VMware is working on making that happen, having bought Nicira for the sum of $1.3 billion. VMware’s chief technology officer told me ahead of his appearance at the EmTech conference in Cambridge today how one effect of Nicira’s technology being put to work will be to make cloud computing of all kinds greener.

Energy consumption is a serious problem for data centers today, which typically consume roughly as much energy when working at full tilt as they do when idle. AC systems run constantly to keep servers from overheating.

Facebook’s custom built data center in Prineville, Oregon, which operates without a single AC chiller, is often held up as an example of how that could be changed (see our gallery “Facebook’s Not-So-Secret Data Center”). Its location was chosen for the combination of year-round cool temperatures, and a reliable prevailing wind, allowing cooling to be provided by evaporating water. Facebook’s engineers came up with customized server designs and power distribution systems to cut energy use even further.

Unfortunately, right now very few companies can replicate much of what Facebook has done, says Herrod. “They have literally one application they have to run,” he says, “the one that powers Facebook.”

Most data centers host a range of different programs, which means they can’t be so specialized, and make the same design savings Facebook did, says Herrod. “If you could have the same efficiency and automation,” says Herrod, “a lot of efficiency savings could be made.”

He thinks Nicira’s technology can deliver that. It creates a protective bubble of software that insulates cloud software from the reality of the hardware it is running on. That hardware can become carefully specialized to a particular data center design or climate, as Facebook’s is, without putting any constraints on the software. Another side effect of the Nicira approach is that cloud software can be moved from place to place without switching it off. Some VMware customers are already thinking about how to use the flexibility that virtualized networks provide to hop their cloud programs to whichever data center has the lowest energy costs at a particular time, says Herrod.

He acknowledges that very few of us will ever have to deal with the kinds of problems this technology is pitched at, but the results should be more widely noticable. Lower energy bills for data centers should mean the web and mobile services built on top get cheaper, and more capable, and also tackle one of the fastest-growing contributors to global carbon emissions. 

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