Data centres could cut power consumption by 25 per cent and achieve higher rates of use if operating systems deployed simultaneous multi-threading, according to researchers at the Australian National University (ANU), working with Microsoft.
"Computer servers spend a lot of time waiting around for search requests to come in. By sneaking in other processes while they are waiting, we can use the computers more efficiently," said Professor Steve Blackburn of the ANU's Research School of Computer Science.
Major internet companies now have huge server farms tuned to provide fast responses rather than efficiency, whether for simple web searches or complex applications running in the cloud, but much of that capacity is idle and used only to cover spikes in demand.
"The companies have no control of when users will request a search, so they have large server capacity that is mostly idle," said Xi Yang, a PhD student at the ANU Research School.
Yang worked with Blackburn and Dr Kathryn McKinley at Microsoft to work out a way for non-time critical processes to use the operating system while it is idle, and to quickly step out of the way when a search request comes in.
"The techniques are extremely easy to implement on current hardware," claimed Yang. "In some cases that we studied, the new techniques made a server nine times more efficient."
The core concept that the team examined was to analyse server and application performance in granular detail so that extra processes could be slipped in while longer processes were awaiting instructions.
"We have analysed the operating system's performance 100 times more closely than before, which is crucial because much of the activity that occurs inside a computer happens at very high frequencies," said Yang.
McKinley suggested that, while high-end hardware offers simultaneous multi-threading, "many companies turn off this feature because, without our approach, sharing wreaks havoc with the responsiveness of interactive services, such as searches".
She added: "With our new fine grain hardware control, we can substantially improve the efficiency of data centre servers while achieving the same responsiveness.
"This work has the potential for enormous impact in data centres. It could save over 25 per cent of the data centre energy bill for these companies, a huge win."
Blackburn explained that the idea was inspired by the fairy story The Elves and the Shoemaker. "It's just like the elves that used the shoemaker's tools at night in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale," he said.
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