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Green programming controls power use

Posted: 09 Jun 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:green programming  software engineering  mobile computing  environment sustainability 

A University of Washington project focuses on a different way to reduce the energy use of computers, data centres and mobile devices than just more efficient cooling systems or energy-saving power modes.

The project sees a role for programmers to reduce the energy appetite of the ones and zeroes in the code itself. Researchers have created a system, called EnerJ, which reduces energy consumption in simulations by up to 50 per cent, and has the potential to cut energy by as much as 90 per cent. They are presenting the research in San Jose at the Programming Language Design and Implementation annual meeting.

"We all know that energy consumption is a big problem," said author Luis Ceze, assistant professor, UW computer science and engineering. "With our system, mobile phone users would notice either a smaller phone, or a longer battery life, or both. Computing centres would notice a lower energy bill."

The basic idea is to take advantage of processes that can survive tiny errors that happen when, say, voltage is decreased or correctness checks are relaxed. Some examples of possible applications are streaming audio and video, games and real-time image recognition for augmented-reality applications on mobile devices.

"Image recognition already needs to be tolerant of little problems, like a speck of dust on the screen," said co-author Adrian Sampson, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering. "If we introduce a few more dots on the image because of errors, the algorithm should still work correctly, and we can save energy."

The UW system is a general framework that creates two interlocking pieces of code. One is the precise part —for instance, the encryption on your bank account's password. The other portion is for all the processes that could survive occasional slipups.

The software creates an impenetrable barrier between the two pieces.

"We make it impossible to leak data from the approximate part into the precise part," Sampson said. "You're completely guaranteed that can't happen."

While computers' energy use is frustrating and expensive, there is also a more fundamental issue at stake. Some experts believe we are approaching a limit on the number of transistors that can run on a single microchip. The so-called "dark silicon problem" says that as we boost computer speeds by cramming more transistors onto each chip, there may no longer be any way to supply enough power to the chip to run all the transistors.


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