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n°18  |  September   2007
Executive opinion

Environment and IT: a priority for Bull
Interview with Bruno Pinna, Marketing Director, Bull

Many commentators are today observing that environmental issues are fast becoming vitally important to the IT industry, often referring to the boundless growth of the datacenters that are powering the Internet. Should we now be preparing for the environment to become a vital and permanent issue for our industry?

Looking at it objectively, the IT industry is by no means the greediest player when it comes to energy consumption. At the beginning of August 2007, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report1 showing that the energy consumed in the sum total of all computing centers in the USA only represents 1.5% of the country’s global consumption. So, at national level, IT only uses the same amount of energy as all the television sets in people’s homes. This level of consumption would never threaten the environment equilibrium, even though to this figure we should add the carbon footprint for the manufacturing of the technologies themselves, data which has yet to be published.

It’s difficult, moreover, to guess at the global figure. Since if IT consumes energy, it is above all in order to automate and computerize processes that used to consume much more energy than the digital ones that are replacing them.

But in a world where sensitivity to environmental issues is becoming – quite rightly – essential, it has now been accepted that controlling energy consumption for IT infrastructures is essential. The power consumption of servers installed worldwide doubled between 2000 and 20052 , increasing from 6.7 gig watts to 14 gig watts, and this corresponds to the power requirement of 14 nuclear reactors. And the same doubling of consumption is on the agenda for the next five years. Of course, the performance of these servers in the same timeframe has, itself, more than doubled. According to Moore’s law, it has evolved by a factor of 6 to 7. While this result is highly respectable in itself, should we be constructing the equivalent of another 14 nuclear power stations between now and 2010 just to serve the IT industry?

In December 2006, in his blog www.roughtype.com, American analyst Nick Carr drew our attention to the fact that each of the 15,000 on-line avatars in Second Life (which is hosted on 4,000 servers) consumed, on average, as much energy as a real person!

Too many servers? Perhaps not... Servers that are poorly distributed or inadequately optimized? Almost certainly.

Many of our customers say the same thing: that it is more and more difficult for them to upgrade their data centers. Restrictions on power supplies and air-conditioning facilities, coupled with a finite amount of available space: we’ve reached the limits on all these factors a lot more quickly than anticipated. According to Gartner Group, the cost of electrical power could rise to 30% of IT budgets in a few years’ time if no action is taken.

Why? There are two main reasons.

Firstly, the energy cost of each server. Eight years ago, a standard high-volume server consumed 35 Watts. Today, that figure is almost ten times higher, with x86 bi-socket servers consuming close to 250W.
But the biggest factor is really just the sheer numbers of these servers being deployed across the average infrastructure. Over the last few years, we have seen millions of standard servers deployed in this way, and mostly using x86 technology. The principle underlying their implementation was more often than not ‘one application, one server’.

This principle was often chosen for one of its essential virtues: that of limiting interdependences between organizations, and in the short term making both management and systems administration easier. In this context, sharing a server could be seen as introducing more complexity. Or it can simply make the ‘owner’ (whether real or virtual) feel they are being dispossessed.

Nevertheless, for larger datacenters the alarm bells are already ringing. And the time has come to face the fact that these thousands of servers deployed in the space of just a few years throughout the worlds’ organizations will have to be better utilized, without even considering for the moment the task of overcoming the difficulties they present from a management point of view.

So, the first item on the CIO’s agenda must be a more efficient infrastructure. This is a key factor for individual enterprises. It is also vital when it comes to constructing ‘mega-datacenters’ serving the Internet. If these vast ‘computing factories’ do come into existence, it will only be possible by adopting an industrial approach, with rationalization, consolidation, and virtualization at the top of the list of best practices requiring urgent implementation.

The good news is that today’s technologies allow us to consolidate infrastructures at reasonable cost. So does this mean we are going to see another industrial revolution in the world of IT? Definitely.

Over the last few years we have lived through the revolution of standard high-volume servers, which are now designed to handle the majority of the workloads in terms of applications, from scientific computing to large-scale databases. And this was all driven, essentially, by cost factors.

We are about to enter a period where rationalization and virtualization technologies will become standardized, once again driven by the same cost considerations. In the first instance, this will apply in the short term to hardware and basic middleware, but increasingly, to the whole of the infrastructure. Environmental efficiency will be driven, at least to begin with, by cost-effectiveness.

So what does Bull’s agenda look like in this context?

We take a very favorable view, evidently, of the new moves towards environmental awareness, both because of the impact it will have on society and on our customers’ competitiveness.
As a socially responsible enterprise, Bull has been involved in initiatives in this area for a long time. Our production centers have been ISO 140013 certified since 2001. All our products have conformed to European RoHS4 directives since 2006 (these directives were defined by Europe in 2003). Our recycling procedures enable us to recycle 50% of the products we deliver, as well as 90% of our packaging every year.

Our technological agenda includes a large number of initiatives, all designed to limit the carbon footprint of our products and services. The main ones are as follows:

  • Our NovaScale and Escala servers already integrate the most advanced technologies as regards energy management, starting with processors, from Intel’s Xeon and Itanium processors to the Power6 processor, all of which enable reductions in consumption while optimizing performance, and also technologies enabling allocation of an “electricity budget” to a group of servers via one of the datacenter’s administration tools.
  • The optimization of the cooling chain, with water-cooled racks due to appear by the end of 2007
  • The optimization of the power distribution chain, by limiting the deployment of converters and adaptors
  • Native virtualization technologies made available for all our high-end servers should enable server capacity to be much better utilized.

The above does not include future developments in the technologies underpinning the datacenter itself. As a European leader in the operation of major IT centers, we will be making significant advances in this area. Infrared detection of overheating at specific points, optimized air circulation, integration of fire-proofing systems posing no danger to humans or the environment, limiting the use of particles in suspension... these are just some of the areas we are investing in. We are also focusing on the engineering side within the framework of programs to restructure the data center, as this is vital to improving its electricity distribution and cooling capability. Since tomorrow’s data center will be much more energy efficient, it will also be much more powerful, and Bull will be one of the few IT players capable of mastering this complexity.

In the short term, we are making consolidation and virtualization approaches our priority, where the hidden resources of productivity and economy have the greatest potential. This is the main driver of our ‘increasing flexibility’ initiative, due to be launched at the end of September.

Rather than playing out our arguments on the media stage, Bull is going straight to the point... We have just installed the largest High-Performance Computing (HPC) center in Europe, for which the constraints of power consumption are particularly high. Above all, we will be helping our customers to optimize the increasingly complex IT architectures that they have to manage. Because, at the end of the day, their real efficiency is going to be conditioned by their environmental efficiency, pure and simple.

1 See http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=prod_development.server_efficiency#epa

2 According to a study published in February 2007 by Jonathan G Koomey, Staff Scientist of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Consulting Professor of the University of Stanford

3 The international ISO 14001 standard was drawn up under the aegis of ISO. It dictates the requirements for an environmental management system (E.M.S.).

4 The European RoHS directive aims to restrict the utilization of six dangerous substances. RoHS signifies “Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances in electrical and electronic equipment”, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chrome, etc.

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