Intel Developing Self-Powered Sensors for IT Devices

Intel labs' overall goal: Finding creative ways to identify and harness new sources power for IT devices that don't pull from the electrical grid. This represents the ultimate in green IT: devices that create their own power supplies.

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel may be known as the world's largest microprocessor maker, but not many people are aware that the company also is doing a great deal of research in order to get into the energy-sensor and power-optimization businesses.
The overall goal: Finding creative ways to identify and harness new sources of power for IT devices that don't pull from the electrical grid. This represents the ultimate in green IT: devices that create their own power supplies.
These new sources can include everything from ambient heat in the immediate area to the energy stored from the motion of moving a trackball on a handheld device.
At a gathering of journalists and analysts here Dec. 5, Intel CTO Justin Rattner presented an overview of the company's research that involves projects ranging from low-power, self-sustaining sensors that can gather and record data on weather and other environmental conditions all the way up to larger sensors with transmitting devices that can help monitor and run data centers.
The former currently is being tested at a cooperative Intel/University of California, Berkeley lab, in which self-powered sensors are placed on city of Berkeley street sweepers -- sensors that continually recharge their batteries and gather and transmit data on environmental conditions all around the city.
The sensors take the data they store and upload it to an Internet cloud using a tiny radio element. From there, city admins can monitor the incoming data on a minute-to-minute basis to determine the location of chemical or natural gas leaks, obtain early warnings on fires, check the level of air pollution and other data points that can directly affect the public.
Sensors Use Ambient Heat, Light to Run Themselves
The sensors use ambient heat from the street sweepers and from the sun to keep their batteries continually charged. "It's basically a 'set-it-and-forget-it' proposition," Rattner said.
Rattner described a number of different scenarios for the use of self-sustaining data sensors, but the one which is most relevant for eWEEK readers is a project to use these experimental devices in data centers -- mostly for controlling heating and cooling of racks of servers to save power draw.
"We're not attacking data center managers or designers, but standard practice has been, for a long time, to just throw in enough cooling capacity to keep everything at 65 degrees. 'Keep it really cold, and everything will just keep working,' is kind of the thing," Rattner said.
That's good when power is cheap, but when it gets expensive, enterprises need to make much better use of the resources, Rattner said.
If this sensory and perception technology -- which Intel calls WISP (wireless identification and sensing platform) -- is used throughout a data center, Rattner said, then the data can be compiled and used to model the weather inside a data center.
Plugging into a Thermodynamic Simulation Model
"Then, you can plug that data into a thermodymanic computer simulation model of the environment, and run it forward. You can project: 'What's this [data center environment] going to look like in five minutes, or an hour, or what have you," Rattner said.
"Then you'll be able to predict the thermal behavior in the room. Once you have that kind of resolution, even looking at the conductive currents that build up in the data center -- the idea of hot and cold aisles, and other approaches to managing heat in the center, for example -- then you can feed it into the data center management software, and begin to apply automation," Rattner said.
Once that kind of granular automated control is available, then much more control over the use of power in sections of the data center can be exercised. For example, if one corner of the center is down for a period of time, then the power for air cooling that section could be automatically throttled, saving loads of power. No human action is needed.
Going further, the idea of thermally-aware load management is possible.
"If one corner [of the data center] is running too hot, then the automation -- in concert with server virtualization -- can redirect the workload to where the air is cooler, smoothing out the load and conserving power." Rattner said.
How far along is all this research, and when might we see it in action?
"We're still in the early stages of all this," Rattner told me after the presentation. "But it's all very promising. We might see some of these demos at IDF [Intel Developers Forum] in the next year or two. We still need to work with new supercapacitors [power augmenters] to bring up the level of power from the ambient sources, and there are still a lot of other things to work out.
"Right now we're kind of going electron by electron, saying, 'Look, there's one now!'"
For more information on these Intel-based green IT projects, go here.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he...