AMD and chip-makers' efforts to create energy-efficient microchips

AMD and chip-makers' efforts to create energy-efficient microchips

AMD's Radeon chip.

Pure computing power used to be the competitive issue in computer chips.

But now, in an age when climate change and carbon footprints are top of mind — especially among millennials who are also the most intensive computer users — there's a new competitive issue: Energy efficient processing.

Today, AMD (the former Advanced Micro Devices) unveils an energy efficiency study on its latest high performance gaming chip to prove that it is about three times more energy efficient per watt of energy used than its AMD predecessor chip.

This means that consumers who are gamers (or high end video graphics producers or watchers) and concerned about climate change can both continue their habits and feel a little less guilty.

And it means AMD joins the fray with Intel and other chip-makers as they all strive to make energy efficiency a competitive advantage in its chips.

Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report showing that computers could be way more energy efficient if hardware makers just tweaked a few things so that idled computers wouldn’t draw the same energy as computers in use.

The energy waste — and therefore potential for energy efficiency — is even a bigger deal for very high performance computers, using very demanding chips. They continue to draw the power needed for the demanding computing activity of high performance graphics even as the user stops to get a cup of coffee or slows down processing needs by simply surfing the net or checking email.

NRDC found that most computers spend 50 to 77 percent of their time in idle or low intensity activities, like reading email, yet processing power and thus electricity demands remain the same.

"Power-saving opportunities already abound, such as fully utilizing the CPU’s (central processing unit) capability to lower its power when not doing any work," NRDC's Pierre Delforge said in a blog post about the study. Other opportunities for energy efficiency the study mentions are configuring motherboards to power off ports and fans when not needed, using efficient disk drives and optimizing power supplies to be match the lower needs of idled computers. 

NRDC

AMD's goal

AMD’s newest graphics chip, the Radeon RX 480 GPU, is manufactured to reduce power draw when it is used for low intensity uses. Compared to the previous AMD chip (the RX 390 graphics card), it is 2.8 times more energy efficient per watt of energy.

"The energy efficiency of our products is a big focus for us," said Robert Hallock, head of global technical marketing at Radeon Technologies Group division of AMD in an interview with GreenBiz.

"PCs are at an interesting point where you can reduce power consumption for the same performance," he said. "We have a couple of corporate imperatives to do that. One is "25-by-20" which is to increase the energy efficiency of our CPUs or processors 25 times by 2020. Now it's trickling down to graphics."

AMD created a 30 percent more energy efficient graphics card with a changed circuitry design. It packs transistors on a chip much closer together to reduce the number of escaping electrons.

"When you make a CPU or graphics chip, they are so small that individual electrons can escape. When that happens, that’s wasted energy and it adds heat," Hallock said. A new manufacturing technology "allows us to clamp down on that." 

In its study, AMD said that if, hypothetically, all the 15.8 million performance-class graphic processing chips sold in 2015 were replaced by this new version, the electricity savings could be 2.8 billion kilowatt hours. That would translate to preventing 1.9 million metric tons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere, AMD said, although it acknowledged that not all graphic chips sold in 2015 will be replaced.  

Justin Murrill, global sustainability manager at AMD, said the microprocessing efficiency gains "are already ahead of schedule" and well on their way to meet the "25-by-20" goal.

Intel 

For five decades Moore’s Law was the ruling trajectory of computing innovation. Postulated by Intel co-founder and CEO Gordon Moore in 1965, it held that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits would double every 18 months and thus effectively deliver twice the processing for the same price. 

About six months ago, Intel said that dictum no longer was realistic and should no longer be the driver of innovation. For one, it is becoming physically impossible to exponentially grow the number of transistors on a chip every year-and-a-half ad infinitum. And secondly, chips have become so ubiquitous and the power they demand so great that energy efficiency should emerge as a significant driver of innovation.

William Holt, Intel's technology and manufacturing chief, reportedly told last winter's Solid State Circuits Conference that energy efficiency will need to be as important as performance going forward.

Hold said that doubling the processing speed for the same amount of electricity use would be the new driver. The company set out developing chips that use less energy.

Intel aggressively markets its energy efficient Xeon line of chips for powering data centers and industrial servers. Data centers are huge power consumers. The Xeon line promises fast performance while being energy efficient. Of course, it is all relative.

But marketing for Intel's Core processor for desktop computing is all about processing speed and performance, not energy efficiency. This is also the case with its Core i7 Extreme Edition for gaming and video graphics and production.

But the tides may be turning.  

As smartphones and everyday gadgets with microprocessors in them mean a proliferation of tiny processors, the chip architecture used in those gadgets, Advanced RISC Machine architecture (ARM), is more energy efficient, according to Quartz

Computers heretofore exempt?

Even as energy efficiency standards have been issued for refrigerators, washing machines and all manner of home appliances, they haven't existed for computers and monitors, NRDC says.

"If all computers achieved a 30 percent average energy reduction, U.S. consumers could save $3 billion a year, reduce electricity use by 29 billion kilowatt-hours annually — equal to the power consumed by all the households in the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago combined," NRDC said in its report. That in turn would "keep 20 million metric tons of climate-disrupting carbon pollution out of the atmosphere, all with zero impact on computer performance or user convenience."

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