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More Data, More Problems

Jamie GoochWe’ve all heard of the beneficial role “big data” promises to play in our lives–from enabling more accurate simulation of weather patterns, saving lives that would otherwise be lost to Mother Nature’s fury; to finding hidden patterns in disease management, which could unlock cures. Of course, less lofty goals are also being realized with big data. Proponents would have you believe that soon every business decision — from which product to design to how to sell it–will be based on aggregate consumer data from Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest of our increasingly digital lives, and they may be right.

But all that data has to be stored and delivered from somewhere. There’s an impulse to view data as ethereal bits of 1s and 0s floating in a white puffy cloud. It seems almost bucolic. The reality is quite different. Tens of thousands of worldwide data centers take up real space and inefficiently use large amounts of power even as they idle, waiting to respond to spikes in demand. All those servers need to be kept cool somehow. Diesel generators and banks of batteries are at the ready in case power is interrupted.

According to The New York Times (“Power, Pollution and the Internet,” Sept. 22, 2012) data centers use about 30 billion watts of electricity, which is about the output of 30 nuclear power plants, and only 6 to 12% of that power was going toward performing computations.

Search for Solutions
In Hong Kong, where the demand for space is high, the government is looking into building underground data centers, with the added benefit that subterranean caverns are naturally cool. Of course, it’s not as simple as carrying some servers into a cave. Excavation, toxic mineral removal and lowered water tables would all impact the environment.

There are less drastic options for reducing data centers’ energy usage, including better software to manage the peaks and valleys of demand, and marrying that to more efficient cooling systems. But more solutions are needed as demand for data continues to grow.

HP’s Moonshot
HP says it has the answer. Last month, it launched its Moonshot servers, which the company says use 89% less energy, 80% less space and cost 77% less, compared to traditional x86 servers.

“With nearly 10 billion devices connected to the internet and predictions for exponential growth, we’ve reached a point where the space, power and cost demands of traditional technology are no longer sustainable,” said Meg Whitman, president and chief executive officer of HP in a press statement. “HP Moonshot marks the beginning of a new style of IT that will change the infrastructure economics and lay the foundation for the next 20 billion devices.”

Moonshot uses Intel Atom system-on-a-chip cards, the same chips used to power many portable phones and tablets. Processors from other companies will come later, each targeting a specific workload, according to the company.

The first HP ProLiant Moonshot server is available with the Intel Atom S1200 processor and supports web-hosting workloads. HP Moonshot 1500, a 4.3u server enclosure, is fully equipped with 45 Intel-based servers, one network switch and supporting components.

Each chassis shares traditional components including the fabric, HP Integrated Lights-Out (iLo) management, power supply and cooling fans. HP says these shared components reduce complexity as well as add to the reduction in energy use and space.

“Testing results show that with Moonshot servers we can expect to run hp.com with the energy equivalency of a dozen 60-watt light bulbs, which is a game changer,” said John Hinshaw, executive vice president, Technology and Operations, HP in the Moonshot press statement.

While nearly every press release in my inbox promises to be a game changer, the Moonshot system is capable of shifting the infrastructure we rely on for our data needs, big and small.

I think Moonshot is an appropriate name. It represents a risk for HP, which released the first commercially successful x86 server and has been an x86 server market leader for the last 16 years. Now it seeks to shake up the market it sits atop. It’s a good move. We’re not going to need less data or want to waste more energy as the global cloud approaches a brontobyte–that’s a one with 27 zeroes behind it. It won’t happen overnight, but data centers now have an option to lower their hardware costs and energy usage.

Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Jamie J. Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the editorial director of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.