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June 1, 2007

HPC Joins the Green Party

by Mike Bernhardt

I've spoken with a number of companies recently who proudly talk about their initiatives to reduce the long-term Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) associated with their HPC platforms. But many others seem hesitant to talk about TCO, feeling it is an older term that has seen its day. And while everyone acknowledges that power efficiency has become a serious topic at all levels of the computing infrastructure, a number of small and mid-size companies don't want to be associated with the topic of 'Green Computing,' saying that it takes away from their real message of performance leadership.

Marketing folks, take note. The fact is, in HPC there is a growing awareness and a strong economic argument for paying attention to Green Computing. The discussion comes from two perspectives — environmental consciousness and economic responsibility.

HPC has always represented the edge of the computing envelope, and I can remember the underlying theme of many branding campaigns as “performance at any cost.” But, the reality today is that larger and larger clusters of PCs, workstations and servers are driving the energy consumption costs right through the roof, forcing IT directors, data center managers, and CIOs to start including power consumption and cooling requirements as critical evaluation criteria for future purposes.

The message for the system vendors and integrators serving the HPC ecosystem is clear. Green is good. You need to put more emphasis on the economics of your hardware solutions. The days of buying performance at any cost are quickly fading into the past.

Suzy Tichenor, Vice President of the Council on Competitiveness, an industry advocacy group whose charter is focused on elevating national competitiveness to the forefront of national consciousness, sums it up quite well:

“In today's highly competitive global market, we must 'out compute' to 'out compete.' But the availability of an energy supply to meet increasing power requirements, coupled with rising energy costs, is causing some leading industrial HPC users to pause as they consider expanding their computing capabilities. This is quickly becoming a strategic competitiveness issue for companies and the country.”

Much of the focus of HPC has involved scientific discovery enablement in areas such as weather modeling, natural disaster prediction, human brain simulation, genomic analysis, and oil and gas reservoir modeling. People haven't dwelled on any possible negative impact HPC systems might have on the environment, since the general awareness of the purpose and benefits of HPC systems has been heavily slanted toward helping the environment and even the existence of life.

The perception of HPC has morphed over the past few years into a much bigger category that now includes the high-end systems being used to drive big business. HPC systems have become the workhorses of many data centers and commercial research, development and engineering groups. In a growing number of cases at large organizations, HPC systems are coming under the budget jurisdiction of the CIO or IT director — along with enterprise, departmental and even individual computer system acquisitions.

For these folks, data center efficiency is appearing more frequently as a measurable objective on their lists of goals that have a direct impact on salary and bonuses.

In the U.S., we can fully expect a continued focus on establishing metrics for Green Computing — setting standards for compliance relative to power consumption. One such effort in this direction is the Environmental Product Electronic Assessment Tool (EPEAT), a procurement tool to help organizations evaluate, compare and select desktop computers, notebooks and monitors based on their environmental attributes. The inclusion of larger systems and components is just a matter of time. The EPEAT system and environmental criteria were developed in a multi-stakeholder collaboration facilitated by the Zero Waste Alliance on a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The IEEE has developed a standard for environmental performance criteria and confirming guidelines in this area known as IEEE 1680. And, starting next month, the EPA is required to report to Congress giving national predictions on energy consumption at large data centers, as well as the agency's recommendations for reducing data center energy consumption.

So, when it comes to telling a 'Green' story relative to HPC solutions, system suppliers and integrators need to sharpen their pencils. Just take a look at what's happening with the PC and server providers at the enterprise and datacenter level. Going green is a big component of the virtualization story. In fact, the strongest argument for virtualization is economic. Better server virtualization = less footprint = lower cost of operation. In California, PG&E is actually offering rebates to companies for eliminating servers using selected virtualization products.

The political awareness and economic impact of HPC is becoming more and more important. Determination of which architecture and which processor to use in defining the technology roadmap for many commercial firms today has the chipmakers competing not just on speed, but also on performance per watt. Numerous case study examples are starting to circulate citing massive reductions of power and cooling bills — combined with improved processing power.

The large companies get this. In February of this year, some of the world's leading datacenter solution providers including AMD, APC, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Rackable Systems, SprayCool, Sun Microsystems, and VMware came together as the founding members of the Green Grid, a global consortium of companies dedicated to advancing energy efficiency in data centers and computing ecosystems.

And just this month, IBM announced an allocation of $1 billion per year aimed at dramatically increasing the level of energy efficiency in IT, with specific focus on transformation to the green data center. Sun, Dell, Intel, Cisco, and others have strong initiatives and creative programs and are taking steps to educate the public on their efforts in eco-friendly technology.

But the small and mid-size companies in HPC face a particular challenge. To be taken seriously, these companies must demonstrate performance levels that allow them to compete with the big boys; but now they must balance their performance story with a strong message around reduced energy consumption.

Having a story around Green Computing is becoming a strong component of credibility marketing that is only going to increase over the next few years.

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About the Author

Mike Bernhardt is a 30-year veteran of high-tech marketing and runs Tabor Marketing Services, a Tabor Communications operating company providing strategic marketing and communications programs to companies throughout the HPC ecosystem.

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