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EmTech@MIT Preview: Greening IT

A special notice from the publisher of Technology Review: as companies wake up to the need for datacenter efficiency, they are faced with a bewildering array of problems.
August 18, 2009

In September, at EmTech@MIT 2009, the world’s most talented and influential leaders in technology will immerse themselves in the most pressing problems–and greatest opportunities–facing technology today. Over the course of the conference, new connections, new insights, and new friendships will mark the beginning of bold new endeavors. EmTech@MIT brings the ideas of emerging technology to life–and does so through the exploration of the hottest topics in tech today.

Air conditioning units between rows of equipment help improve cooling efficiency in this simulation.

Imagine a mid-sized country populated entirely by computer servers. Ridiculous? Not a bit. Datacenters worldwide already consume as much energy as the whole of the Netherlands. What’s more, these machines are multiplying at a staggering rate. The energy consumed by datacenters in the U.S. accounts for 1.5% of national consumption. If left unchecked, the figure will quadruple by 2020, according to a study released by McKinsey and the Uptime Institute in 2008.

Most data centers are terribly wasteful, too. An analysis by the Department of Energy from April 2009 concludes that facilities, on average, convert only 15% of the energy they consume into useful computing and could be made up to 50% more efficient.

Datacenter energy use is a big problem. It’s also a big opportunity.

A panel of business, academic, and government experts will help unravel the challenges and explore the most promising solutions to improving datacenter efficiency at a panel entitled “Greening IT.”

As companies wake up to the need for datacenter efficiency, they are faced with a bewildering array of problems. For one thing, most datacenters have way more capacity than they actually need, because the temptation is always to overprovision in case of failure. This means that up to 30% of datacenters are functionally “dead” at any one time, according to the McKinsey-Uptime report.

The Green Grid, a consortium established in 2007 to promote IT efficiency across the industry, suggests that many companies need to completely rethink capacity, powering down unused equipment and switching to less power-hungry components to save on energy. Wasteful power supply is another common predicament, and cooling, which can account as much as half of all energy use, is perhaps the biggest conundrum of all.

If identifying the most significant problems is tricky, identifying the best, most cost-effective solutions is trickier still. Different kinds of power supply can reduce inefficiencies, but software can also track energy consumption and manage hardware more efficiently. Virtualization software can get more out of servers, but companies that once built or leased their own server farms now have the option to use cloud computing services instead. Cooling can be localized or facilities can be redesigned to make better use of existing technologies. More radical schemes include chilling machines inside giant cooling towers or simply moving data to colder locations when the weather gets too hot.

At EmTech@MIT, big, complicated problems get explored in great depth, and by the kind of people who are hard to get into a room at the same time. The result: ideas that will change the world.

Join us in Cambridge on September 22-24, 2009 for EmTech@MIT.

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