Microsoft trying out netbook processors in data centers

Microsoft is trying out processors designed for netbooks in data centers and finding potential energy, and therefore cost, savings.

It sounds crazy to use processors designed for tiny netbooks in data centers, with their potentially massive computing requirements, but Microsoft is experimenting with doing just that and finding that it may lead to cost savings.

A netbook processor uses one-fifth or one-tenth the power of a typical server processor, offers about one-third the performance and is cheaper than server processors, said Jim Larus, director of software architecture for data-center futures, a group within Microsoft's Research group. That means that even though a data center would require three times as many netbook processors, the power requirement would still be lower than that of typical server processors.

At TechFest, an annual demonstration of some of the technologies that Microsoft researchers are cooking up, Larus showed off a typical data-center cabinet stocked with off-the-shelf netbook processors.

The cabinet doesn't require the large fans that are typically built into the containers. The processors produce less heat because they consume less power, in part because they offer less performance but also because they were designed to require as little energy as possible so as not to quickly drain the battery of a laptop, Larus noted. The cabinet, which contained 50 dual-core processors, can be plugged into a standard electrical outlet, he said.

The setup in its current configuration isn't really usable -- because the processors came off the shelf, they are built into boards that include unnecessary ports for add-ons like monitors. That means they take up more space in a cabinet than most data-center operators would like.

But Microsoft, which is sharing its experiment with server vendors, hopes that vendors will take interest and begin building products for the data center based on the smaller processors. Ideally, the processors would be designed so that they can be packed into a tighter configuration in a cabinet, he said.

In addition, the netbook processors aren't as fast as data-center operators would like, he said. There's probably a "sweet spot" in between netbook processors and today's server processors that's just right, he said.

Microsoft is also experimenting with typical features built into the netbook processors that might be useful in the data center. One is the ability for the processor to sleep when it's not in use. Larus showed a demonstration of the netbook processors running a theoretical search program. While keeping the response time to a search query to three-tenths of a second, the processors not in use powered down.

Larus works in a new group within Microsoft Research that was started about 10 months ago to focus on improving data-center efficiencies. Running efficient data centers will be increasingly important in the future, he noted. In the past, Microsoft sold software to people and the end-user bore the costs associated with running the software, including buying the hardware and consuming the electricity. But Microsoft increasingly expects to host software for people, meaning it will be running that software in energy-consuming data centers.

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