DARPA is working on new chip design. Promises high efficiency, powerful compute and…low accuracy?

Photo credit DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the US Department of Defense (DoD) agency responsible for the development of new technologies for use by the military. 

The scientists at DARPA routinely launch projects so audacious and ambitious that their project list looks like something conjured up by science fiction writers and Hollywood directors rather than legitimate scientists.  Thought controlled bionic arms? Check.  (See project Proto2).  Iron man style powered exoskeleton?  You bet.  (See project XOS)  Battlefield telepathy? Yep. (See project Silent Talk)  Throw in a half dozen autonomous robots and an assortment of super-soldier tactical gear and you start to get a picture of a group that lives on the bleeding edge of science and engineering. 

Given the radical technology innovations these guys are dreaming up it’s no surprise that they’re getting frustrated with the slow pace of computer chip efficiency improvements.  When your projects include surveillance systems that can “track everything that moves” in an entire city (CTS), you obviously need computers with serious processing power.  But, just as importantly, these DARPA projects also require computers that make efficient use of electricity. 

Per chip processing power has continued to double every 18 months (roughly in accordance with Moore’s Law.)  However, chip energy efficiency has reached a near dead end.  In other words, power scaling has all but ceased.  As a result, battery powered devices can’t keep up with the energy demands of the computer chips.      

To address the chip efficiency issue DARPA is throwing away the digital rule book and designing a new generation of ANALOG computer chips.  Instead of using the energy intensive, Boolean logic strategy of driving voltage into transistors to change their state from zero to one, Darpa is examining low power “probabilistic” computing possible using analog computing.

Daniel Hammerstein, DARPA program manager for project UPSIDE, expects intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems utilizing the new technology to be faster and “orders of magnitude more power-efficient.”

How does it work?  According to the DARPA press release; “UPSIDE envisions arrays of physics-based devices (nanoscale oscillators may be one example) performing the processing. These arrays would self-organize and adapt to inputs, meaning that they will not need to be programmed as digital processors are. Unlike traditional digital processors that operate by executing specific instructions to compute, it is envisioned that the UPSIDE arrays will rely on a higher level computational element based on probabilistic inference embedded within a digital system.”  (A super fast, super efficient, self organizing, self programming nano-computer?  What could possibly go wrong?)  

Probability computing abandons the its-either-one-or-zero straightforwardness of digital computing.  As a result, it sacrifices some accuracy.  For imaging and surveillance applications, the inexact nature of analog, probability processing may be sufficient. 

Ben Vigoda, the general manager of the Analog Devices Lyric Labs group seems to think that the technology may be applicable to the problem of energy consumption by data centers and server farms.  In an article for Wired, Vigoda stated, “We’re using a few percent of the U.S.’s electricity bill on server farms and we can only do very basic machine-learning,” says Vigoda. “We’re just doing really, really simple stuff because we don’t have the compute power to do it. One of the ways to fix this is to design chips that do machine-learning.”

Maybe.  But a large portion of those server farms using all that electricity are financial sector facilities.  I don’t see them (for example) rushing out to cut their power bills by introducing errors into their data. 

For the foreseeable future, information systems still require three core characteristics; Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability (CIA).  I don’t see many takers for computing strategies that sacrifice one of these core principles for better energy efficiency.


4 ½ Data Center Industry Predictions for 2012

2011 is finally gone and 2012 is off to a roaring start.  Here in the blogosphere the bloggers and pundits are busily making predictions about what the New Year has in store for the data center industry.  I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to the urge to prognosticate. And, I have a few predictions that I’m not seeing anywhere else.  In no particular order, here we go…

1.         Another Bad Year for Natural Disasters

2011 was a terrible year for natural disasters.  No region of the US was spared this year as wildfires torched the west, floods ravaged the mid-west, tornadoes devastated the south and blizzards paralyzed the North.  According to the NOAA, the US set a new record with 12 weather/climate related disasters that caused greater than $1B in damage.  Total damage from these 12 events approached $52 billion and resulted in the tragic loss of 646 lives. The previous record for billion-dollar weather/climate disasters in one year was 9, set in 2008.

Unfortunately, I’m predicting that 2012 will be just as bad.  Here are a few of my reasons:

  • The graph above indicates (to my untrained eye) a general upward trend.  Call it climate change, global warming, the Mayan end of days or the wrath of vengeful creator.  I care not.  The undeniable fact is; the planet is getting a bit pissy these days. 
  • 15 named storms are predicted to form in the Atlantic during the 2012 hurricane season (Colorado State University).  If 2011 hurricanes Lee and Irene are indicative of 2010 storms, we could be in a wet and windy hurt locker in 2012.
  • NCEP Climate Forecast System (CFS) models predict La Nina to redevelop during the fall of 2012.  This weather pattern has historically resulted in severe Pacific weather patterns and droughts in the central part of the US.
  • Solar scientists are predicting that the sun will reach a period of maximum sun spot and solar flare activity in 2012 solar maximum.  This could lead to geomagnetic storms and power failures.

Climate and weather disasters are clearly bad news for our economy, the general population and for data centers that haven’t spent enough on their electrical and mechanical resiliency.  The utilities that we all depend will be less reliable and fuel costs could soar. 

However, well prepared colocation providers and data center constructors should see steady work as companies with funded DR plans and critical infrastructure seek shelter from the storms.  Which, in turn, should help lead to…    

2.         Another big year for data center construction

2011 was a good year for the data center design and build industry.  Some of the “pent up demand” that we all talked about in 2010 finally let loose.  Data centers started popping all over the place.  Wholesale data center providers such as Digital Realty and Dupont-Fabros ramped up production and colocation providers expanded their capacity as quickly as possible.  Despite the boom in data center construction, demand outstripped supply in most markets throughout 2011.  (As I pointed out here.)

I’m predicting 2012 will be even better.  (Hopefully, wildly better!)  Cloud and virtualization technologies will continue to mature and make the “server closet” a concept of the past. Startups and SMBs will continue to turn to the waiting arms of cloud/colocation providers rather than spend their limited time and resources managing and building their own stacks of silicon.

In the consumer marketplace, data hogging services such as voice recognition, digital publishing, social media photo sharing, online gaming and music from the cloud will continue to be in high demand.  This demand in particular will result in many more of the “industrial size” data centers we saw built by Internet titans like Amazon, Google and facebook in 2011.

Data center construction will be good here in the States.  However, our growth will be dwarfed by activity emerging markets.  As Christian Belady points out in this graph, the global data center market will grow vastly faster than the US and European markets.  Look for activity in China to skyrocket.


3.         Increase in cyber attacks on critical infrastructure

Cyber attacks on infrastructure of national significance will be a major concern.  The Stuxnet worm demonstrated that a hacker could cause catastrophic physical damage to critical infrastructure from the comfort of his desk and with complete anonymity.  Unfortunately, the technology that enabled Stuxnet has started to proliferate and new malware has already been found that exploits similar vulnerabilities. 

Cyber criminals and other bad actors have started turning their attention toward the possibilities for mischief in the rich and untapped fields of Industrial Control Systems (ICS).  Cyber weapons have that exploit weaknesses in the ICSs that manage vital systems such our power grids, water supplies and chemical plants will proliferate and increase in potency.

Fortunately, I predict that the US power grid will remain safe.  Our water supply needs work but will probably remain secure as well.  However, facilities that utilize ICS-SCADA technology and are not currently implementing security measures may have a serious problem.  If you don’t think that data centers fall into that category, please see my article on the subject.  (Even better, come hear my presentation on the subject at AFCOM Data Center World in March 2012.  Vegas Baby!)    

4.         Data center efficiency efforts will shift from facilities it IT

In the last 10 years, the concepts of energy efficiency and sustainable design have gone from completely inconsequential to completely consuming in the minds of data center professionals.  You can’t pick up a trade magazine or swing a cat in a data center conference without hearing some pitch about green data centers. 

When smart people focus on an issue, smart ideas are generated. When the data center industry started focusing on energy efficiency, astounding and innovative ideas became reality.  As a result, average data center PUE went from near 2.8 in 2000 to near 1.4 in 2011.

A few deeply committed (and deeply funded) data center companies have started hitting average PUEs around 1.14.  I predict that these amazing efficiencies are close to the end of the path for data center electrical and mechanical energy efficiency.  It may be possible to shave a few more hundredths off but the cost of getting there makes it a losing proposition from a business standpoint.    Google senior director of data center construction Joe Kava calls it the asymptotic range, the “point where it (PUE) is flattening out” meaning the gains are becoming smaller and smaller.

In order to continue to drive additional efficiency into data center operations, data center energy efficiency programs will shift focus from facilities to the IT side of the data center.  End users will demand more efficiency from server and chip manufactures. We will see:

  • Server utilization will become a larger topic. 
  • Data center analytics will enable the identification of underutilized and “Zombie servers”
  • New data center efficiency metrics will be launched that measure the effectiveness of a data center’s server utilization
  • New server architectures based on energy sipping ATOM and ARM chip technology will gain market share
  • Promising advances will be made in the area of Near Threshold Computing (NTC)

4½          Cuba emerges as the Technology hub of the Caribbean, Central and South American markets.

This is my bold, and thoroughly baseless, prediction for 2012.  It’s so bold and baseless that I’m only counting it as half a prediction.  (ala Jeffery Gitomer

This year will see the end of the Castro regime in Cuba.  Capitalism and technology will move in swiftly as soon as Fidel exits stage left.  I expect Equinix and QTS construction in Havana before the end of the year.  Demand for managed/cloud services from the new Cuban casinos, resorts and business will be the spark that will eventually transform Havana into the Silicon Valley of the Caribbean, Central and South American markets. 

There you have it; 4 ½ predictions for 2012.  (I wish I could have come up with a nice round number like 10 or even 5.)  Overall, I am confident that we will continue to see fantastic growth in the data center industry.  I also expect that growth to be fueled by innovative and unexpected feats of engineering and technology.  Now get out there do smart stuff! 

Happy New Year and may you all prosper and find adventure in the days to come!

Santa “Un-friends” Coal

Naughty children all over the world are breathing a sigh of relief at the news that Santa Claus has decided not to place lumps of coal in their stockings on Christmas Eve.

The long standing tradition of coal in naughty children’s stockings has been the proverbial “stick” in the Christmas carrot-and-stick behavior equation for as long as anyone can remember.  Nevertheless, Santa’s spokeself has confirmed that this year Saint Nick will be leaving the North Pole without a sack of coal for delivery to a few egregiously underperforming children.

It appears that Santa is bowing to a relentless campaign by environmental activists.  An anonymous elf source stated, “The environmentalists really ratcheted up the rhetoric this year.  Greenpeace’s “Coal Isn’t Tinsel” campaign really stung the old man.”

Representatives from Greenpeace commented, “We believe that Santa’s association with the filthy coal industry needed to end.  By delivering coal to children, Santa continuously reinforced dependence on fossil fuels with each succeeding generation.  We are proud to have helped stop the cycle of violence against the Earth.”

2011 has been marked by significant victories for Greenpeace.  Earlier this year they chalked up a major win against Internet giant facebook by forcing them to “unfriend” coal.  It seems that facebook had the audacity to build a major data center in the state of Oregon which generates a slight percentage more of its electricity from coal than other states.  The environmentalist group was not dissuaded from their campaign by the fact that facebook’s data center is a model of energy efficiency and sustainable design.  They were equally unimpressed by the fact that if the data center had been built in a different state it would have consumed more electricity and contributed more greenhouse gases because it would not have been able to take advantage of the cool Oregon climate for “free cooling.”

Santa was equally unsuccessful when trying to reason with Greenpeace.  Tensions peaked earlier this year when Santa thundered, “The lump of coal a symbolic gesture you nitwits!”  Greenpeace responded with a well crafted marketing campaign that equated giving fossil fuels to naughty children with giving loaded weapons to known criminals.

Santa quickly caved to demands after Greenpeace pointed out that Santa is operating a workshop at the North Pole.  An activity the Greenpeace characterized as “a harsh, polluting industrial facility located at the vulnerable center of Earth’s most pristine and sensitive wilderness.”

Santa is reportedly working with representatives from Greenpeace to find an alternative to lumps of coal for naughty children.  Greenpeace has suggested biodiesel producing algae.  Santa has suggested reindeer manure.  In either case, environmentalists will be hanging their stockings with extra care this year.

(PS Thanks to soniacarreras for the elf!  http://soniacarreras.deviantart.com/#)