Energy crisis can mar the progress of the Digital revolution

India is the fourth largest consumer of energy in the world. Improving standards of living are driving energy consumption higher, but also creating the risk of environmental damage.

We are currently facing a global energy crisis – but not just the kind faced by energy companies as a result of the recent spectacular collapse in the price of oil. India is the fourth largest consumer of energy in the world. Improving standards of living are driving energy consumption higher, but also creating the risk of environmental damage. Economies around the world are struggling to keep pace with the growth in power requirements needed to fuel our digital economy.

Sumit Sadana, executive vice president, chief strategy officer and general manager, Enterprise Solutions at SanDisk shares his view on what companies can do to fulfill the soaring demand for digital technology while optimizing energy consumption in data centers.

Computing always seems to be facing an energy crisis. Why is it so?

Earlier in the 1940s, mainframes were powered by power-hungry and extremely fragile vacuum tubes. If you tried to make a Google data center today out of early supercomputers like the ENIAC, it would consume as much energy as all of Manhattan.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, chip designers warned that chips could begin to emit the same amount of heat—adjusted for their size—as rocket nozzles or nuclear power plants. Before the worst happened, the trend was stemmed with the advent of multithreaded and multicore devices.

Virtualization, cloud computing and innovative cooling technologies implemented over the past decade subsequently helped pave the way for hyperscale data centers. These data centers drove increased efficiencies in capital investments and enabled companies to focus on the total cost of running these data centers, including footprint/size, power consumption and compute, networking and storage efficiency. EBay, for instance, saved $2 million in data center energy costs by slightly changing its software code on some applications.

Are these advances the path to reach energy efficiency nirvana?

Not by any means. We’re still using far more energy than we should. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that data center energy consumption in the U.S. alone could be cut by 40 percent with existing technologies and more effective monitoring. These changes would save $3.8 billion a year and eliminate millions of tons of emissions.

With data center construction growing at 21% a year and more countries implementing carbon policies, taking a business-as-usual approach to energy will only create headaches down the road.

So what can actually be done?

First, we’re still not at the limits of virtualization. A few years ago, server virtualization hovered at anemic 6% to 12% levels. It’s now moving higher, which gives us the opportunity to reduce the overall number of servers required in a data center. The concept of software-defined infrastructure for networking equipment and storage is gaining momentum. Disaggregated storage topologies are gaining traction, allowing a more efficient and resilient infrastructure design.

But we also need to assess if there are fundamental changes we can make in how we design and deploy hardware. Storage systems based on flash memory represent the first wave of changing ideas about hardware. Flash-based storage systems can cut power consumption by 85% due to a combination of inherent efficiency--hard drives spin; chips don’t-- less air conditioning--flash generates far less heat per gigabyte of storage--and less hardware.

The reflexive reaction that flash is more expensive than hard drives by looking at the cost per gigabyte ignores the possibility of re-imagining the data center from the ground up. IDC’s Eric Burgener estimates that all-flash storage can let you eliminate 50%to 80% of your storage systems and 5% to 30% of your servers. This in turn drives reduced spending on software licenses, shrinks the footprint of the datacenter and dramatically reduces power consumption.

Expect also to see specialized servers based around new types of networking or processing architectures. New products that take advantage of the trend towards disaggregated storage will combine with trends to embrace open source software, to create new options for customers. Just as freeways were invented to accommodate the stunning growth of cars, we’re going to need a new infrastructure and new thinking to meet the growing demand for digital. In the future, petabyte scale deployment of flash will become the norm in more and more workloads, and overall savings driven by flash will make this even more economical than hard disk drive-based systems.

The impact of these changes will expand the market in countries like Nigeria, India and China where the spread of technology can be hampered by blackouts, power theft and weak grid infrastructure. By consuming less energy, technology becomes more robust, economical and versatile. It’s that simple.

Energy concerns won’t stop the digital revolution. But we are going to need to take actions so energy won’t slow it down.