Sensing Green Microsoft
By Jia Wu, China Internet Weekly
August 5, 2009 2:00 PM PT

Madagascar, a small island beside continental Africa, which is home to some of the world's most beautiful coastlines, monkey bread trees, which symbolized true love in the movie “The Little Prince” and white beaches that seem straight out of a utopia, may need to be evacuated of its entire population.

“Scientists predict that sea level will be one meter higher by end of this century, and that many scenic coastal cities will be submerged. Another projection is that global oil reserves can only be sustained another three decades or less if consumption remains at current levels,” said a somber Feng Zhao, Assistant Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia.

Unlike many of his colleagues at Microsoft Research Asia, Zhao has traveled to many places around the world. “In forests, on glaciers, or near volcanoes, sensors are able to detect environmental changes – they even make their way into craters to detect possible toxic gases. Minor vibrations prior to a volcanic eruption don’t go unchecked and serve as early warnings,” Zhao said. Before joining Microsoft Research Asia, Zhao was Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research Redmond. Owing to many of Zhao’s research findings, Microsoft's data center is now known as the most intensive cloud-computing infrastructure for global instrument-based measuring and monitoring. In his eyes, sensing technologies should never stay within the circle of computation; they should be integrated into other disciplines to improve our living environment. This is one of Zhao’s ambitious tasks and one of Microsoft’s, as well.

Black Boxes

For Zhao, joining Microsoft Research Asia was no different than returning home. “Microsoft Research Asia is a very interesting place known for its rapid innovation and in-depth research. I fell in love with her at first sight.” Zhao likened his connection with Microsoft Research Asia to a marathon of romance that was ignited five years ago when he first encountered his “institutional lover.” “It took five solid years before we vowed ‘I do,’” he explained.

To illustrate, Zhao put a beeper-sized black box in front me, saying it was one of the wireless sensors he designed at Microsoft Research Redmond, capable of measuring changes in temperature and humidity. “We managed to save energy with these sensors, which were mounted directly on server racks at the data center to collect and transmit real-time data on ambient temperature so that controllers are able to automatically adjust data center usage.” It took Zhao no more than six months to design this wireless device and prepare the first prototype for testing.

The focus on issues related to data center building has shifted from capacity to energy consumption. Propelled by technological advances, servers today boast faster data processing speeds, but they also gobble up a greater amount of energy. “You are already consuming energy even before you access server spaces.” In some countries and territories, data centers are subject to certain power ceilings in an effort to ration energy usage, because excessive burdens may jeopardize the power supply system and endanger other users within the system. Imbalance between energy consumption and processing efficiency may also cut into the reliability of data in the servers, which could be compounded by sudden power failures.

“Sensors are designed to optimize and reduce energy consumption without affecting your work,” Zhao continued. “It would be meaningless no matter how much energy is saved if such efforts result in any irretrievable emails and other critical data. Service quality is the bottom line.” Should Microsoft's next goal be in the “cloud,” these MSR-marked sensors would serve as a ladder to the sky. “Cloud computing involves a great deal of real-time monitoring and integration of data from sensor software and hardware to yield intelligent and easy-to-use data packets. In addition, monitoring data for rapid analysis are extremely dynamic and command a lot of artificial intelligence built in the servers.” It was Zhao’s purpose -- and Microsoft’s -- to have these little black boxes take care of data centers that perform cloud computing so that servers could wise up.


Why did Microsoft, the software giant, turn its eyes to the hardware business? What blueprints does Microsoft have behind these sensors?

“We chose to do hardware because there was no suitable hardware platform for our research at that time. When the platform gets mature, we may put an end to our own project, and turn to cooperate with companies that specialize in hardware. Our software development, for its part, provides an independent and all-purpose platform, from which we can see data gathered by any sensor.”

The software platform Zhao was referring to is the SensorMap designed by Microsoft Research, in which over 1,000 sensors embedded across Microsoft's data centers are charted. Data transmitted via the Internet indicates in a conspicuous way the overheated points, or spots, where server rerouting is needed. This enables one to understand the company's energy usage on a macro level. Of course, the application of SensorMap is not limited to Microsoft. “Australian authorities are working with us to detect changes in the Great Barrier Reef, as one- or two-centigrade changes in the temperature of ocean water will have a major impact on coral reefs.” One may even capture the rate of snow melting on the Alpine mountains through SensorMap. With sensors applied in environmental monitoring, computation finds its way deep into other disciplines and academic endeavors.

“Energy-saving and environmental protection involves cooperation across disciplines and laboratories to achieve results where one plus one is greater than two. By bringing in expertise from different fields, we can really hit on something special,” said Zhao, pointing his mouse to the western coast of the United States in the SensorMap. Despite the sunshine outside, the night view of Seattle was revealed bit by bit.

Green, and Lucrative

Steve Ballmer was given a score of seven on a rating scale of environmental protection performance that Greenpeace devised for CEOs of technology companies. The reason behind this fairly low score was that Microsoft merely set a relative target for emission reduction rather than an absolute one.

Ballmer took this score seriously. Microsoft had long planned to have its carbon emission per dollar of revenue cut by 30 percent by 2012 from its 2007 levels, but he still wrote in a memo that carbon reduction policies must be implemented in product design. This was perceived as a positive sign that points to a new direction for the company's future development: product innovation through energy-saving technologies.

“Energy saving in the IT industry carries two meanings: reduction in power consumption of hardware facilities without hurting their efficiency; and ‘do more, cost less’ via computation. For instance, we can manage room temperature and ration power usage along transmission lines with computing technologies. In fact, we have well-developed power generation and transmission gears, and incredibly fast computing machines, but the whole industry chain still faces an energy shortage. So one of the most critical missions of the IT industry is to help boost efficiency in all energy-consuming sectors.”

The more natural beauty Zhao has witnessed around the world, the more he is moved by his sense of responsibility for protecting the environment. He wishes to help bring down energy consumption through his personal efforts in research. “The notion of energy-saving via computation applies to everything -- from mobile phones to data centers -- and we need to take into account factors in both hardware and software. We often discuss how our research work could be elevated to higher levels where we would be able to define new areas of study and realize better things,” he said.

Perhaps someday in the near future, the household edition of SensorMap will allow a homeowner to know the power consumption of each appliance with built-in sensors, and such management might be able to save quite a few nickels in household expenses. “Energy consumption not only reduces your daily spending, but also provides an extra fortune,” Zhao smiled, “Energy is equally important as the environment, and I am not excluding the possibility that future products may help save your carbon emission, which can then be traded for dollars.” Brainstorming for greener ideas is now underway inside Microsoft.

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