EU-funded research to make the cloud greener

A special 3D microchip, being designed by an EU-funded research project, looks set to drastically cut the electricity and the installation costs of servers in cloud computing data centres, cementing Europe’s place as the home of green computing.

Cloud data centres – thousands of computer servers in one location – can be the size of football fields and consume the same amount of electricity as 40,000 homes. The data centres are essential because they enable the cloud computing revolution: consumer services like Facebook, Gmail, Spotify and mobile apps, and business services like customer databases.

The Eurocloud project has adapted low-power microprocessor technologies, typically used in mobile phones, to work on a much larger scale. Preliminary measurements show that using these technologies reduces power needs by 90%, compared to conventional servers.

These results have the potential to make data-centre investment affordable for more European companies – growing a new industry – while saving the cloud computing customers of data centres billions of euros.

European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes said: “Today’s power-hungry cloud data centres are not sustainable in the long run. The Eurocloud chip addresses the core of this energy consumption problem. I hope further development of the Eurocloud chip will boost the position of European businesses in a sector currently dominated by non-Europeans.”

The Eurocloud server project involves researchers in the UK, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland and Cyprus. It received EU funding of € 3.3 million over 3 years (1/1/2010 – 31/12/2012) (63% of the total € 5.4 million).

By 2020, the digital universe will reach 35 zettabytes (1,000,000,000,000,000 MB) – up from 1.8 zettabytes in 2011 (a 1844% increase). Powering and cooling these data centres will become out-of-reach for European companies without innovations like the Eurocloud chip and server.

EuroCloud targets server chips that will cost 10 times less to buy and will consume 10 times less energy when they operate compared to current state-of-the-art servers. This will allow hundreds of microprocessor cores to be embedded in a single server, thus making a data centre with 1 million microprocessor cores feasible in the future. Designing the 3D Server-on-Chip will permit building super-efficient, environmentally clean and compact data centres in Europe aiming at green cloud services. Pioneering the green data centres will further strengthen the European leadership and excellence in green computing.

The Eurocloud server project tries to integrate low-power processing cores and memory in close proximity and in three dimensions. Access to on-chip memory uses significantly less energy because the physical distances between components are shorter and there are fewer “junctions” for electrons to cross on their journey from memory to processor. The project has also developed Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) analysis tools for data-centres: this will help those planning data-centres or designing servers to rapidly assess the cost implications of their decisions over the entire life-span of the data-centre.

The project’s specific areas of work are:

Virtual prototype specifications of 3D servers: Going beyond conventional two-dimensional chips, the project is exploring the third dimension for server chips utilising low-power microprocessors and integrated memory (“3D stacked server chips”)

Characterisation of Cloud Applications: Software running on cloud data centres has new characteristics and requires specially optimised server platforms. The project is measuring and analysing the behaviour of cloud applications to guide the design of the server chip.

Scalable 3D architecture specifications and power management: Server chips for the cloud must be at the same time future-proof and low-power. The project is working on techniques to achieve these two objectives.

On-chip hierarchies and interconnects: In a three-dimensional server chip much more on-chip memory will become available. The project is developing new methodologies to organise and access the increased on-chip memory.

Reliability, availability and fault tolerance: The project is working on the necessary mechanisms for the crucial challenge of 24/7 operation of servers in data centres.

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