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How green is My IT?

Internet companies such as Google are investing billions of dollars in setting up massive data centres and struggling to control soaring power usage. A tech start-up to tackle energy use by data centres.

Print Edition: August 24, 2008

Data centres in the US have created a carbon footprint that is larger than that of countries such as The Netherlands and Argentina. Internet companies such as Google are investing billions of dollars in setting up massive data centres and struggling to control soaring power usage. While Google may want its users to trawl thousands of terabytes of data and get their search results almost immediately, this activity gobbles up plenty of energy.

Here’s the problem for companies such as Google: power usage by data centres accounts for around 2 per cent of all the power supplied to the US grid and 2-3 per cent globally.

Viridentís Ganapathy: Serving the servers
Viridentís Ganapathy: Serving the servers
As companies struggle to balance their quest for greater computing capacity while controlling power use, they are turning to technology for answers. Virident, a Californiabased start-up set up by a couple of IIT-grads who also went to the same graduate school at University of Illinois, is looking to address this issue using by enhancing the memory capacity of servers using specially designed “flash” memory chips (commonly used in cell phones, for example) to increase the computing capability of servers.

Virident (derived from Viridus in Latin meaning green and dent meaning to make; literally to make green), was started by Kumar Ganapathy and Vijay Karamcheti, who blended their experience across the semiconductor industry and academia to set up this company.

Ganapathy was a Fellow with Rockwell Semiconductor before he set up his own start-up, VX Tel, which built voice over IP chipsets, and then worked with Artiman Ventures. Karamcheti worked with Google and spent the last 15 years working on parallelisation techniques at New York University.

The duo has teamed up with an assortment of business acquaintances to set up Virident and embed these flash memory chips in data centres. As a first step, the company roped in Raj Parekh, a former Sun Microsystems honcho and venture capitalist as Chief Executive, and allied with flash memory vendor Spansion, as both a business partner and investor. (Virident has raised around $26 million from Googlebacked Erasmic and Artiman Ventures, among others). “Server utlisation across large Internet companies and corporates is barely 10-20 per cent due to memory restrictions,” says Ganapathy.

The solution, according to Virident executives, is to embed flash memory in these data centres to enable them to crunch much more data. “We believe our technology can improve server utilisation two to six times and help companies drastically reduce costs, both for power and for the physical storage of new data centres,” says Ganapathy. Virident claims to have close ties with server vendors and says its solutions should be shipping by the end of this year or early next year and will soon seek a fresh round of funding to back its expansion plans.

According to Ganapathy, Virident will primarily focus on Internet companies and large corporates such as financial services firms that are large users of data centres. “Internet-based companies are expected to account for 25 per cent of server purchases over the next few years,” he explains. Virident will use a twopronged strategy to target its customers, relying on its partners for the mass market and directly addressing high-value customers.

Already, Ganapathy & Co. are working on the second stage of Virident’s technology plans. This involves attacking the server subsystem and tweaking their power settings. “Most servers and data centres have their power set up for worst case scenarios, when the most computing muscle (and, therefore, power usage) is needed.

But there are periods when they may actually idle, but be configured by default to consume the same amount of power. We believe our technology can effect a two-fold reduction in power consumption,” says Ganapathy.

Already several influential voices are backing Virident’s plans. For example, a recent McKinsey study made it a national imperative to double data centre efficiency in the US by 2012. With such challenges, Ganapathy and his colleagues may have their hands full for sometime yet.

Rahul Sachitanand

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