American spy agency the National Security Agency (NSA) is running out of juice. They don’t have enough electricity for all their gear, and are thus suffering power outages and brown outs. According to an article at baltimoresun.com, things could get worse as summer comes on. When you add a lot of machines to a facility, there is a corresponding need to be able to maintain a suitable operating temperature in the facility by bumping up the air conditioning. Air conditioning is also going to place demands on the electrical system. From the Sun:
problem was first brought to the attention of then-Director Kenneth Minihan in 1998 as he prepared to upgrade the agency’s technology infrastructure. But he chose not to pay for electricity upgrades along with the new technology infrastructure, the senior intelligence official said. Minihan did not respond to requests for comment.”
After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, the NSA’s computing resources have been increased further. Now they don’t have the juice to run it all.
My favorite quote from the article is “However, lawmakers also reprimanded the NSA, intelligence officials said, for using money for spy operations to pay for electrical expenses without congressional approval.” Of course, congress might argue that spies have existed for ages prior to the invention of electricity. Perhaps the NSA should simply put a bunch of guys in hose and capes and wide brimmed hats with a stylish feather in the band, then have them hang out in the shadows of pubs and taverns inconspicuously eavesdropping on the conversation of patrons.
One really can’t defend the NSA for its lack of foresight, but it should be noted that they’re not alone. Here in Vancouver, Canada, several major collocation facilities have been squeezed for power as well. However, in that case the culprit wasn’t supercomputers, but rather a machine on the other end of the spectrum, the lowly 1U rackmount PC.
Once upon a time, the word “server” conjured an image of a computer in a full tower case. Now such computers look positively antique. Towers are mostly mid-tower size, and server rooms may have rackfulls of rackmount computers, each one with its own power supply and Easy-Bake Oven of a processor. On the up side these rackmount computers allow more computing power to be packed into less space than ever before, but on the downside they really drive up the need for electricity and air conditioning. The NSA is not the only entity wrestling with these problems.
In the long run, the solution may be multicore processors and virtualization. In a past entry I touched on the subject of running operating systems in virtual machines. The problem with this approach is that each operating system places its demands on the processor. But with one of these 80 core babies that Intel is developing, there are plenty of cores to serve many virtual machines. A machine with a processor like this, scads of RAM, loads of storage, and a big pipe connection to the network could replace a couple of racks of rackmounts at a fraction of the power cost.
Perhaps the NSA should be spying on Intel — if they aren’t already.