Can Computing Clean Up Its Act? – Slashdot

Long-time Slashdot reader SpzToid shares a report from The Economist: What you notice first is how silent it is,” says Kimmo Koski, the boss of the Finnish IT Centre for Science. Dr Koski is describing LUMI — Finnish for “snow” — the most powerful supercomputer in Europe, which sits 250km south of the Arctic Circle in the town of Kajaani in Finland. LUMI, which was inaugurated last year, is used for everything from climate modeling to searching for new drugs. It has tens of thousands of individual processors and is capable of performing up to 429 quadrillion calculations every second. That makes it the third-most-powerful supercomputer in the world. Powered by hydroelectricity, and with its waste heat used to help warm homes in Kajaani, it even boasts negative emissions of carbon dioxide. LUMI offers a glimpse of the future of high-performance computing (HPC), both on dedicated supercomputers and in the cloud infrastructure that runs much of the internet. Over the past decade the demand for HPC has boomed, driven by technologies like machine learning, genome sequencing and simulations of everything from stockmarkets and nuclear weapons to the weather. It is likely to carry on rising, for such applications will happily consume as much computing power as you can throw at them. Over the same period the amount of computing power required to train a cutting-edge AI model has been doubling every five months. All this has implications for the environment.

HPC — and computing more generally — is becoming a big user of energy. The International Energy Agency reckons data centers account for between 1.5% and 2% of global electricity consumption, roughly the same as the entire British economy. That is expected to rise to 4% by 2030. With its eye on government pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the computing industry is trying to find ways to do more with less and boost the efficiency of its products. The work is happening at three levels: that of individual microchips; of the computers that are built from those chips; and the data centers that, in turn, house the computers. […] The standard measure of a data centre’s efficiency is the power usage effectiveness (pue), the ratio between the data centre’s overall power consumption and how much of that is used to do useful work. According to the Uptime Institute, a firm of it advisers, a typical data centre has a pue of 1.58. That means that about two-thirds of its electricity goes to running its computers while a third goes to running the data centre itself, most of which will be consumed by its cooling systems. Clever design can push that number much lower.

Most existing data centers rely on air cooling. Liquid cooling offers better heat transfer, at the cost of extra engineering effort. Several startups even offer to submerge circuit boards entirely in specially designed liquid baths. Thanks in part to its use of liquid cooling, Frontier boasts a pue of 1.03. One reason lumi was built near the Arctic Circle was to take advantage of the cool sub-Arctic air. A neighboring computer, built in the same facility, makes use of that free cooling to reach a pue rating of just 1.02. That means 98% of the electricity that comes in gets turned into useful mathematics. Even the best commercial data centers fall short of such numbers. Google’s, for instance, have an average pue value of 1.1. The latest numbers from the Uptime Institute, published in June, show that, after several years of steady improvement, global data-centre efficiency has been stagnant since 2018. The report notes that the U.S., Britain and the European Union, among others, are considering new rules that “could force data centers to become more efficient.” Germany has proposed the Energy Efficiency Act that would mandate a minimum pue of 1.5 by 2027, and 1.3 by 2030.


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