Green screen: Using less energy to power campus supercomputers Green screen: Using less energy to power campus supercomputers

Choosing computers over paper may seem like a straightforward way to reduce environmental impact, but before you run off to recycle your files, save everything to a hard drive, and cancel your supply orders, you should remember that ever more large and complex tasks have been shifted onto computers, and they have grown in capacity, speed, and electricity consumption, possibly making them more of a factor in global warming than cutting down trees for paper products.

Though the consensus of what defines a supercomputer has varied, now they are generally classified as a computer having several microprocessors with custom designed interconnects which allow them to function at extremely high speeds, and usually built for a specific computing function. Now they consume more electricity than ever, much of which is used inefficiently and most of which is not cleanly produced. According to John Carley at the Institute for Sustainable Communications, “The data centers and servers in the U.S. consume 61 billion kW per year and the majority of that energy comes from coal-fired plants.”

It’s no surprise then that universities, which have to power huge research centers, are leading efforts to reduce the electricity demands. Purdue University and the University of Maine have each completed a massive project to cut the energy consumption of their supercomputers in the last five months, and other schools are not far behind.

Purdue completed the installation of a SiCortex supercomputer in June of 2008. Energy use has become one of the biggest challenges in conducting scientific research,” says Gerry McCartney, Purdue’s vice president for information technology and chief information officer. “It’s not just the power the computer itself uses, which can be significant, but also the air conditioning. The electricity needs of the supercomputers and the associated cooling can sometimes limit the amount of science that can be done.” Most supercomputers and their data centers require at least a watt of electricity to cool the computer for every watt spent in operating.

Already Purdue’s computer, which is reported to use 40 percent less power than a comparable supercomputer, has been used in research from chemistry to non-electronics. But McCartney indicates that one of its main contributions will be in researching what sort of tasks this new build of computer is capable of, and how green computing science can be eventually applied to other supercomputers on campus. 

SiCortex, a Boston-based company that manufactures low-energy, high-performance computing platforms, is also behind the University of Maine’s 72-processor machine that, according to the company, is compatible with the world’s largest supercomputers yet uses less than 300 watts of power and fits into a desk side compartment. The computer was unveiled at a demonstration at the University of Maine on October 15, 2008 and was powered by bicyclists to show the low amount of power it required to run (in most cases, a single processor uses about 100 watts of power, while a processor in a SiCortex machine uses .5 watts) but even pedal power proved to be more than enough. The battery became overcharged and the student demonstrator actually had to wait for it to power down before continuing. Unlike Purdue, Maine’s computer requires no data center to house it and is cooled by a 20 year old fan and a 10 year old portable air conditioning unit.

Other universities are also moving towards green supercomputing technology. In October 2008, the University of California, San Diego, opened a data center to house its supercomputer center, with a new-to-the-U.S. design to ventilate and cool its operating system, and the University of Illinois broke ground in early November on a $208 million sustainable data center for a supercomputer it plans to bring online in 2011.


See More:

A Green Supercomputer Center Opens at UCSD: The Chronicle of Higher Education

University of Illinois Starts Construction of Sustainable Supercomputer Center: The Chronicle of Higher Education



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Published: November 25, 2008