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Computer Science Meets the Grid

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University of California, Berkeley professor Randy Katz says future computers need to be designed to meet the energy efficiency needs of data centers, and the power grid needs to adapt and become more like the Internet. At a gathering of Berkeley researchers, Katz demonstrated that computers use far too much energy when not in use, and described the trend toward massive data centers that will contain warehouses full of containers that house computers, communications, power, and cooling systems. "It used to be you designed computers at the chip level, then we moved to the board level, and then racks," Katz says. "Now something like a 20-foot container is the basic building block of the aggregated systems we are building, and there is a completely new set of knowledge needed to build it." Katz says tomorrow's million-server data centers represent the industrialization of the information technology industry.

Katz also described a new effort at Berkeley called LoCal, which is exploring the technologies that are critical to upgrading the modern electric distribution grid. Katz called for a future grid capable of generating, storing, and switching energy flows on demand, similar to the Internet. "This will be a switching network that has energy and data flows integrated into it," he says. The switching network could allow users to buy and sell power based on demand. LoCal will develop algorithms that would enable power-based transactions.

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