IBM is beginning a $1-billion-a-year investment program intended to double the energy efficiency of its computer data centres and those of its corporate customers.
Many technology companies are trying to curb the runaway energy consumption of data centres, the modern engine rooms that power the Internet and corporate computing.
But IBM is the largest single operator of data centres worldwide, and analysts say the company's initiative, which is being announced Thursday, is a significant step in deploying a broad range of technologies to tackle the problem.
By 2010, IBM plans to double the computing capacity of its hundreds of data centres worldwide without increasing power consumption, by using an array of hardware, software and services. These include a new cooling system that stores energy and chills the data centre only as needed; software to increase the use of computers and automatically switch them to standby mode when not needed; and 3-D modeling and thermal engineering techniques to optimize the air flow through data centres.
IBM will use these technologies itself, and offer them to its corporate customers. The company designs and oversees the building of data centres for clients globally, with more than 30 million square feet of floor space in the last decade. The company designed and built 20 data centres in China alone last year.
"What is significant is IBM's emphasis on using a range of technologies and on planning, design and user practices," an analyst at Forrester Research, Christopher Mines, said. "It's not just about selling new, more efficient chips and computers. And that is in contrast to some of its peers in the industry."
The rise of Internet computing is behind the rapid growth of data centres and the increase in energy use. The number of server computers in data centres has increased sixfold, to 30 million, in the last decade, and each more powerful machine burns far more electricity than earlier models.
The cost and availability of electrical power is becoming a critical issue for many companies whose data centres have expanded steadily. IBM formed an "information technology optimization" task force at the start of the year.
"We decided it was critical to mobilize the full resources of the company to attack the problem," said William M. Zeitler, senior vice for IBM's technology group. "This is approaching a crisis for many of our clients."
Industry specialists say that the layout, management and operation of a data centre are often the most important energy-saving tools.
"Investing a lot in new technology is going to be wasted unless you get the basics right," said Scott Stein, a principal at Global Datacentre Solutions, a consultant.
A survey by Forrester Research of 124 corporations in the US and Europe found widespread concerns about energy efficiency in data centres, but only about a fourth of the companies had programs to adjust procurement and operating practices to curb energy use.
Technology companies, individually and in industry groups, have begun promoting energy-efficient computing. The Green Grid, a consortium, was created in 2006 to work on energy consumption standards for equipment in data centres. Its members include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sun Microsystems, Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, VMware and others.
Last December, Congress passed legislation authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to study energy use in data centres and to develop an Energy Star rating system for data centre server computers, as it already has for personal computers.