Energy-efficient chips are cool, but Intel is reaching much deeper in eco-innovation

OK, OK, we've all heard a gazillion and one things this week about why Nehalem, er the Intel Xeon processor 5500 series, is like, a total breakthrough in terms of energy efficiency. Intel calls the chip its most revolutionary product in the past 15 years (shades of Pentium) and all manner of software companies, including Sun Microsystems, are falling all over themselves to optimize their operating systems or applications for the platform.

OK, OK, we've all heard a gazillion and one things this week about why Nehalem, er the Intel Xeon processor 5500 series, is like, a total breakthrough in terms of energy efficiency. Intel calls the chip its most revolutionary product in the past 15 years (shades of Pentium) and all manner of software companies, including Sun Microsystems, are falling all over themselves to optimize their operating systems or applications for the platform. (Check out this video from Sun if you don't believe me.)

In fact, Intel does have lots of cool (pardon the pun) eco-innovation research going on that you'll hear about in the wake of this launch, and its interests extend way beyond the microprocessor. I've sat in on a couple of briefings about what's going on (including one with Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner) and figured now would be a good time to point out some of its broader work in eco-technology. They fall into three different areas:

  1. Real-World Sensing and Perception
  2. Load-Adaptive Power
  3. Harvesting Free Energy

Real-World Sensing and Perception The work in this area centers on Wireless Identification and Sensing Platforms (WISPs) and Wireless Ambient Radio Power (WARP).

The first class of devices would include sensors that can collect information and communicate using nothing more than ambient energy, which means they don't need batteries. Intel imagines all sorts of different application, such as systems that monitor greenhouse gas changes or devices that keep tabs on air quality (such as those that were installed on street sweepers as part of a trial in San Francisco). In a data center, WISPs could be used to keep tabs on thermal activity and let cooling systems know when to kick into overdrive -- or when to back off.

The work on WARP pulls energy from the air (such as those emitted by radio waves) to power small devices, such as all manner of gadgets that might be useful around your house like a humidity gauge.

Load-Adaptive Power Systems Personally speaking, I get the sense that this is one of the areas where we'll see the most action first, if the demo that I saw at Intel's recent Eco-Innovation showcase is any indication.This is pretty common sense stuff, all of which is meant to address the fact that even when a computer is supposedly "asleep" it really is only dozing. Your USB drive is always listening for input, your monitor is refreshing and so on. Intel is working on a combination of hardware and software to help your systems take better "micronaps," according to Manny Vara, director of technology evangelism with Intel Labs.

A holistic approach to energy efficiency in any computing system needs to consider the core logic, the operating systems and virtual machine modules, telemetry to help track and enforce platform-level policies, the ability to handle different loads, and attention to the behavior or peripherals and interconnects.

Harvesting Free Energy This is related to the sensors that were referenced in the first area of innovation. But Intel is studying ways to pull power out of virtually everything from photovoltaic (solar) sources to thermoelectric sources such as body heat to mechanical sources like vibration to radiation such as television signals or Wi-Fi. The notion is that there shouldn't just be one power source for a given piece of technology: it should be able to take advantage of whatever source is most readily available and abundant.

Here's the Intel Web site where you can poke a little deeper into what's going on.

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