The future of computing – Moore’s Law, but not as we know it

The future of computing – Moore’s Law, but not as we know it

Written by Darren Watkins, Managing Director, VIRTUS Data Centres Published Thursday, 05 May 2016 09:45

I’m not sure that there is anyone in the world who wants less power or lower performance from their systems.  In line with Moore’s Law, we have become accustomed to technology developing at breakneck pace and expectations are that it will continue to improve ad infinitum.  Technology has got smaller, cheaper and yet more powerful and today’s smartphones can do more than many of the super-computers of old.

Moore’s Law has been the bedrock of modern computing for the last 40 years.  Sadly, the Law is in its twilight years and if the speed of processing power is to continue to develop (especially in today’s digital world of Big Data) other areas of computing need to be looked if it is to progress and improve.  We have come to the tipping point when the technology industry will have to become far more inventive without Moore’s Law guaranteed path of invention.

Drawing on vast numbers of crunching resources in the cloud is one of the main ways that computing can continue to advancing.  By sharing computer capacity, processing capability improves which enables businesses to be more effective and innovate.

I am old enough to remember SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) when it was big in the 90’s.  It was software that you could download so when you were offline your computer capacity could be shared with systems around the world and mine massive data to search the universe for extra-terrestrial intelligence.  This is one of the first examples of cloud - using shared resource.

The principle is the same for public cloud today.  Rather than having 20 owned computers in a data centre, by connecting to a multitude of other systems through the cloud, people can share the benefit of combined processing power.

So how does this relate to Moore’s Law?  The cloud has to live somewhere and the data centre is its home.  It provides a ‘server farm’ in a super-cooled environment where all the data-crunching can be done remotely. 

Cloud has been one of the most talked about subjects in the tech industry for over 10 years, and it has taken that long to become mainstream.  But now it is, the take up is meteoric.  For a long time, there was an oversupply of data centre space in the market, but space will quickly be consumed if data centre companies don’t continue to build.  Today, capacity needs have increased exponentially and companies don’t buy what they used to a few years ago when the average take up was a couple of hundred kW.  Now businesses are buying multiple megawatts in one go.  And there aren’t many data centre providers who can deliver that kind of space. 

Moore’s Law is about the doubling of processing power every two years.  If you look at the consumption of cloud to satisfy the future of computing, Moore’s Law still applies at the data centre level.  If we think of a data centre as a silicon chip (because it effectively provides processing), capacity will need to continue to double year on year.  VIRTUS is a good example.  It has gone from 6MW when it had one site, to 40MW and three sites in 18 months.  In these terms, VIRTUS will need 80MW or more of data centre capacity in a further 18 months.  Data centre organisations need to work very closely with cloud providers to understand their prolific growth rates if they are to be able to meet the demands of the future of computing. 

But how else can data centre providers prepare for the potential end of Moore’s Law for microprocessors?  In the UK we don’t have an abundance of real estate on which to build data centres, so we need to look to new technologies if we are to improve computing capacity.  Increasing speed and the availability of power will be major factors.

Photonics is already being looked at to increase processing speed, albeit at the early stages of research.  Some labs, for example, Intel in Texas, are testing photonics which uses light so data is processed more quickly with no resistant losses.  This stops heat being generated and enables processing at the speed of light, reducing the need for so many processors because they are much quicker.  This will further enable Moore’s Law to increase processing capabilities, thus starting the cycle again.

For any computer to work, it needs power, and data centres need lots of it.  If Moore’s Law applies to data centres, so it will apply to power.   The danger is that the UK could face a power shortage in the future because of the rate of consumption and the time it takes to build power plants.  The most innovative data centre providers are mitigating this potential risk by future-proofing their energy requirements.  At VIRTUS, this is an area we are already focused on.  We are investing time and resource to look into self-generation of power by standard means and alternatives such as nuclear batteries.  By looking ahead, we can continue to aid the future of computing.  

So, Moore’s Law may be coming to an end in terms of microprocessors, but it is only moving along the supply chain and a new wave of creativity could be unleashed where the leading innovative data centre players come to the fore.  Thinking outside the box can only be a good thing and we are entering a new era of technological innovation - it’s about being clever rather than just throwing more processors at the problem.