Army Looks to Industry To Reduce Computer Energy Consumption

By Stew Magnuson
When it comes to computing, there are two kinds of power.

One is the speed of a processor and how fast it can crunch ones and zeros.

Less talked about is just regular “power,” the amount of energy it takes to keep a machine or servers running.

As the demand for information technology increases, servers and other equipment are being pushed closer to battle zones, and being housed in remote, or temporary bases.  

“Most of the data centers in theater, whether they are at battalion headquarters or a base camp, are being run off of generators,” said Tom Simmons, area vice president, public sector at Citrix Systems Inc., an information technology company that works with the military.

“We can’t continue to put more and more servers and more and more storage in these battlefield data centers. We just can’t keep up [with the energy requirements],” he said.

The Army, along with the information technology companies that serve it, are looking at ways to reduce the energy footprint of data centers.

“The Army continues to pursue analyses and demonstrations to guide its efforts to balance computing performance, reliability and energy use to support its operations,” Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for energy and sustainability, said in an email.

Kidd said the Army is applying lessons learned in Iraq to directly address the energy needs of data centers and individual computers. In Iraq, regional data hubs were created, he said.

One of the main problems is cooling the systems. Computers and servers produce heat. Central processing units, CPUs, for example, are the most sensitive and important part of a computer, but they can become warm enough to cause burns if handled. If they become too hot, their speeds can slow down. The result is less efficient computer processing, or the system can crash.

Afghanistan and Iraq in the summer only ups the ante, and forward operating bases must use more fuel to run the air conditioners that keep the machines at reasonable temperatures.   

Kidd said concentrating data centers in regional hubs in Iraq made them easier to sustain and reduced the number of personnel required to operate them. The hubs were located where adequate data bandwidth via satellite communications was available.

“The long-term trend has been toward providing ‘thin-client’ solutions for users which push computing functions — again, closely related to energy consumption — back to servers that can be located elsewhere to save energy,” Kidd said.

Thin clients are stripped-down computers that link to an offsite server where all the computing power is housed.

Citrix has also been working with the Army to consolidate computer systems. This will result in more energy efficiency, Simmons said.

Virtualization separates the operating systems and the application from the underlying hardware and makes one server look and feel like 10, he said.

The problem the Army has had is the many “stove-piped” computers that only perform one function. That has meant one desktop machine or one server performing one task.

“By creating these multiple virtual machines on one physical server box, it greatly reduces the demand for the number of servers I need in a data center,” Simmons said. “And by reducing the number of servers, I reduce the number of power consumption and cooling requirements.”

Integrating all these different applications is easier said than done, he said. They often run on proprietary software from various vendors and use different operating systems. However, the gradual introduction in the military of applications based on Microsoft Windows has made it easier to take the myriad programs and put them onto one monitor. Better communications also means that the service can take advantage of thin-client computers, Simmons said.

“In theater with the comms capabilities that we have today, I’ve got a connection that is pretty much ubiquitous,” he said. “So instead of looking at an operating environment that exists on my physical device, I am connecting to an environment that is hosted in my data center either in theater or even in some cases all the way back here stateside.”

Harry Aderton, communication networks business development manager at General Dynamics C4 Systems, said the Army has been its main customer for its containerized data centers.

These are racks of servers placed inside a nondescript shipping container. They are not meant to accommodate personnel other than those who go inside to do quick repairs.

“With the HVAC blowers, it would be too noisy anyway,” he added.

Not having to make the data center cool and comfortable enough for humans reduces the energy consumption, Aderton said. The servers are housed in a confined space, which reduces the energy footprint, he said.

A little more than half of the energy consumed by data centers, studies show, goes toward cooling.

Brick-and-mortar data centers are often over-built, he added. They may initially house servers for 200 soldiers, but in anticipation of a troop buildup, engineers construct a facility designed to accommodate 5,000 or more.

“All of the sudden they are building a giant behemoth to serve soldiers who may or may not be coming, and you have to cool all the space throughout the building. You have to run lights. You have to have fire suppression,” Aderton said.

The 8-foot by 20- or 40-foot long shipping containers are designed to take a beating, he said. And since the Army uses them extensively the enemy can’t be sure what is inside. It could be a data center, or it could just be material goods, he said.

Meanwhile, plans are under way to sharply reduce the number of Army facilities that house servers. The Army wants to get out of the business of running them altogether and turn most of them over to Defense Information Systems Agency, which can operate them more efficiently and at a lower cost, said Maj. Gen. Mark Bowman, director of architecture, operations, networks and space at the Department of the Army. The goal is to have consolidated all the servers into the 10 centers by 2015.

How many data centers does the Army have today? Nobody in the service really knows, he acknowledged. The service is attempting to count them, “but they are popping up all over the place,” he said at an industry conference last year. He defined a data center as any structure of more than 300 square feet “with a lot of servers.”

“We know of about 279, but that number keeps going up,” he added. Some entities in the service have not been forthcoming on requests for information on how many servers they have and what their purposes are, he said.

“We need to do this right or people will get scared,” he said. They will fear that their systems and capabilities will be taken away from them.

That might not be a bad thing. They may discover that they are paying energy costs for systems they don’t need. He knows of some servers that only run one application or are only using 33 percent of their capacity.

Once the owners of the servers discover that they will have to pay to migrate their equipment to DISA-run centers, they may decide to do away with redundant or unnecessary information technology systems, he suggested.

Kidd said, “Going forward, one of the best technologies to reduce energy use in data centers includes the deployment and fielding of smart micro-grids on Army forward bases.”  

The Army is testing and is actively fielding multiple smart micro-grid technologies that will reduce the amount of fuel that is needed in its operations, Kidd said.

These systems — essentially smaller versions of power grids used in large cities and regions — allow electricity consumers to generate and control the amount of energy used in the most cost effective manner possible.

The technology has been touted for hospitals, college campuses, military bases and other entities that operate in confined areas.

These technologies provide power more efficiently to operate forward-deployed bases and the associated activities that occur there, Kidd said. Examples include the Smart and Green Energy for Base Camps and the Smart Charging Micro Grid. Micro-grids have also been sent to Afghanistan in support of current operations.

A portion of the distributed power through these micro-grids can be used to power data centers and individual computers, he added.

Topics: Energy, Power Sources

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