The Big Interview: Pat Gelsinger

Summary:Intel's Pat Gelsinger on the future of Itanium, technology in the developing world and the one-chip blade server of tomorrow

...to have better control as well as to have a surface area for the leakage. We're looking to make changes, that's one of our key research areas over the next couple of generations. We're good at 45 [nm], not likely to change at 32, but beyond that it's pretty likely we'll look at a new structure.

You've talked a lot about power and environmental factors in the data centre. What's Intel doing?
We've been doing a lot as a company ever since Gordon Moore; he had a penchant in this direction. We plan our own operations in terms of environmental efficiency, we sponsor a lot of initiatives in the industry, and obviously our energy-efficient product line has been a big deal for us.

How well is the move to more efficient computing going?
You need metrics to measure it, like any of these kinds of things there's lie, lies and benchmarks. We've worked on SPECpower, vConsolidate, ecomark, which have all been important efforts for us in defining how things work. We've had a good success with a number of the big data centres and started on our own operations. What we've seen is this incredible densification of the data centre, and it's led to the compute space being compressed by something of the order of 20 times over the past decade.

Generally, the thermal envelopes have gone down by about two [times], but because the computing space is getting denser you're seeing almost 50 times the amount of power density. That's pretty stunning. Data centre managers are putting 100 servers where they used to have 10, and the amount of compute you're getting in that space is typically two times what you had before, so with Moore's law and other microarchitectural improvements, the performance you're delivering is pretty stunning.

Where are the tools for power management?
Intel wouldn't claim that we've solved all of those problems, but we're also working with the key OEMs, HP, IBM and so on, as well as working directly with some key users, giving them our BKMs — our best known methods — and applying them to their environments. You'll see a number of different announcements in the very near future, to put these ideas under a broader umbrella.

Are there major differences in data centres around the world?
The developing world isn't as far behind as you might think. Their sophistication in planning and building their data centres is rapidly catching up to the mature markets but there's still a gap. One unexpected key sign is that every one of the major emerging countries — Russia, India, Brazil and so on — has major high-performance computing projects as well as major megadata centre efforts underway. You're seeing Baidu trying to position itself as the Google of China, you're seeing China and India putting petaflop programmes in place to be in the front edge.

Why can't they leapfrog, as with communications, by taking everyone's best practices without their legacy?
I don't see them leapfrogging at this time, but I see the five-year gap we used to expect become a much shorter gap in these scenarios, maybe a one- or two-year gap at this point. But they're coming on strong. It's amazing. You go and see a Baidu data centre and it's pretty impressive. But you look at India saying, "we're going to have a petaflop machine in 2008", that's pretty impressive for a country that not long ago wasn't even in the high-performance computing race, and they could be literally number-two or number-three in the world, They see the challenge in racing China as well as looking north, and both of those has brought a lot of impetus in installing IT infrastructures.

When do you see power becoming an important issue for smaller data centres, ones with handfuls of servers?
If you're just talking 30 or 40 servers then power's not that big a deal. Only hundreds of dollars' difference per year. But people are environmentally concerned, so they're putting those priorities ahead of just the savings associated with them. If I ran a Google data centre I could be talking about millions of dollars of operational costs per year, plus as a company they're trying to position themselves at the front end as eco-friendly and environmentally conscious, as part of their corporate positioning, and I think you're going to see that trend increase. We're seeing the digitisation of industries. Amazon is becoming a retailer of mammoth proportions. Google's out to digitise the world. The environmental impacts of these data centres are increasingly concerning governments, as environmental issues become more important in general.

Topics: Emerging Tech

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