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One afternoon, two Carnegie Mellon graduate students stop by Dave Andersen’s office in Wean Hall to brainstorm project ideas for their computer architecture class. They bandy about some possibilities, covering the whiteboard with equations and graphs. But to their frustration, nothing clicks.
So Andersen, an associate professor of computer science, turns to one of his old standbys for inspiration. He opens his toy box—a desk drawer overflowing with old computer hardware and discarded electronic parts. He locks his eyes on the collection of tiny green computers that he bought off the shelf for an earlier project involving how to improve home Internet access; their low-power chips run three times more slowly than an iPhone4. Like the rest of his toys, Andersen saved them, believing they eventually might be good for something.
Now it suddenly occurs to him what that “something” might be. These tiny processors can’t do much by themselves, but what if they could be networked together? Perhaps, collectively, they could do a much bigger job than they could ever do on their own.
In this age of 24/7 online access through computers, tablets, and smartphones, creating reliable connectivity is no small task. Just ask any of the online giants such as Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. It has led to the proliferation of what are called data centers, which are facilities that house mammoth computer systems and associated components, such as telecommunications and storage systems. Often bigger than football fields, these centers are an enormous power drain. If you were to consider all data centers in the United States as a single country, experts say they would rank as the fifth-largest nation in the world in terms of energy consumption. By last year, they were expected to use up to 100 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, for a total annual cost of $7.4 billion. With cloud computing on the rise, these numbers are expected to grow.
Skyrocketing electrical bills cut into profits, so Web companies and others are thinking seriously about the problem of energy efficiency. “These companies are at such scale that they have power bills of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” Andersen says. “Improvements in the efficiencies of their systems can significantly affect the bottom line.”
It also can affect the future of our planet. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the power consumption of U.S. data centers translates into emissions of 59 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year—equivalent to 13 coal-fired power plants. In other words, increasing the energy efficiency of these facilities could materially help shrink the eco-footprint of the computing industry. That resonates loudly for Andersen, who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, surrounded by spectacular mountain ranges. He is still an avid outdoorsman, skilled at rock climbing and skiing, who is known to run 70 miles in a single week, preferably on trails. “I have this very big green heart beating in my chest,” he says.
For all of the time he spent outdoors as a child, he has spent just as many hours in front of his computer. At age 10, his parents bought him a dial-up modem for his Macintosh Plus, one of his first toys. By today’s standards, the cute, boxy machine would seem maddeningly slow. The modem took about a minute to download a small picture—a digital eternity now, but a virtual miracle in the mid-1980s.
Andersen was smitten. Life wasn’t always easy for a boy who wasn’t Mormon growing up in the religious minority in Salt Lake City. Now he could reach out to other people who shared his interests. It no longer mattered if he didn’t quite fit in at home. Literally at his fingertips, there was a new world where he felt he belonged. “I spent way too much time online,” Andersen jokes. “I was just completely fascinated by networks and the ability to talk to other computers and people.”
As a teenager, he helped run one of the biggest online bulletin boards—precursors to the Web—in Salt Lake City, using 64 phone lines. As an undergraduate at the University of Utah, he cofounded a company that became the third-largest Internet service provider in the state. After graduating with dual degrees in biology and computer science, he left Utah to pursue a PhD in computer science at MIT. One morning in 2001, as he was working in his grad school lab, the fiber-optic Internet connection to the building cut off. Suddenly, much like the modem he received as a child, another toy inspired Andersen. He had recently installed a DSL line—his newest plaything—to hook up the Internet to the lab through the phone.(Continued …)