Data centers are responsible for an ever-growing consumption of energy. © Alain Herzog

31.05.11 - Launched today, the ecocloud consortium brings several EPFL laboratories together to tackle the skyrocketing electricity demands of Internet data processing centers.

The computer giants have their heads in the cloud. More and more frequently, massive data processing and storage operations are handled in vast “data centers” constructed by the big Internet companies. Yahoo!, for example, is building a huge center in Avenches (Canton de Vaud). Demand has grown steadily, to the point where computers, and particularly networked computing, have become an absolutely essential part of our culture. The data and programs that underlie all this no longer reside on individual machines, but must now be made accessible from anywhere, without the user needing to know where they’re located. Industry has coined a poetic phrase for this system of organizing data and programs: “cloud computing.”

But there’s a storm brewing in this cloud. The amount of data that Internet service providers must absorb and handle is growing at an exponential rate. The energy they consume is likewise increasing – it’s currently estimated that the carbon footprint of the world’s data centers is equivalent to that of the entire global aviation industry!

At EPFL, twelve laboratories are joining their expertise to form the ecocloud consortium, launched today in a special event at the Rolex Learning Center. Its objective is to work on reducing the amount of energy these centers consume.

Running out of options
The pressure to reduce energy consumption is not just environmental; in the U.S. last year, data processing centers consumed 1.5% of the total electricity consumption of the entire country! If this electricity appetite could be curbed, the potential savings would be enormous. “We are observing that in material terms, technological progress is running up against two limitations,” explains professor Babak Falsafi, head of EPFL’s Parallel Systems Architecture Laboratory (PARSA). “We can no longer reduce the current used in microchips, which has up to now made it possible to keep energy consumption from increasing at the same pace as processing power. In addition, the sheer amount of data is increasing way faster than the technology with which to handle it.”

The ecocloud center’s ambition can be illustrated on a graph: the increase in data centers’ electricity consumption should not rise exponentially, but linearly. If it doesn’t, the viability of the IT sector will be in jeopardy. “I’m not expecting there to be a real revolution in the next ten years,” emphasizes the professor. “But we are exploring several avenues that may lead to a gradual increase in processor and memory efficiency, by a factor of 100 within ten years.”

Strong industry support
Ecocloud’s research is organized around three axes: data, energy and intelligence. Promising ideas are already being explored; for example, research into directly cooling processors as a function of the jobs they are doing at a given time; and constructing a “vertical” system in which the memory sits above the processor, in order to increase and optimize the flow of information between them.

As evidence of the economic potential of its research, ecocloud already has several industry partners: Credit Suisse, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Oracle, Swisscom and Intel. The consortium has secured additional funding from programs in Switzerland (nano-tera) and Europe. “Thanks to the support and expertise of our scientists, we are in a position to become a recognized center of excellence at the European level in the domain of Cloud Computing,” says Falsafi.