The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Shrinking Computing’s Carbon Footprint

CarbonFirst center at MGHPCC

Any serious endeavor to resolve the global climate crisis will need to address the colossal energy generated by cloud computing’s exponential growth. Now Professor David Irwin of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at UMass Amherst is part of an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional team that has been awarded $3 million to make cloud computing more low-carbon, sustainable, and “green” by addressing its huge energy output. See UMass Amherst-led Team Awarded $3M Grant to Decarbonize Computing.

The large grant was issued by the National Science Foundation and VMware, a private technology cloud-computing company. The so-called “CarbonFirst” team of researchers is led by Prashant Shenoy, distinguished professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences, and includes UMass researchers Irwin, Ramesh Sitaraman, and Mohammad Hajiesmaili, as well as collaborators from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and California Institute of Technology.

The project builds on more than a decade of research in carbon-aware computing at UMass, which has emerged as a global leader in this area.

As Irwin explains, “UMass is really unique globally in the concentration of people it has working at the intersection of computing and sustainability, which, as this project demonstrates, is becoming an increasingly important topic in both industry and society. This concentration of expertise enables us to do `big’ things at UMass that just aren’t possible at many other places.”

Sanjay Raman, dean of the College of Engineering, says that “UMass Amherst has an extraordinary track record of research and leadership in renewable energy, climate science, and sustainability across multiple departments and colleges. Recently, we have launched the Energy Transition Institute, focused on transforming our energy systems while also promoting the socioeconomic equity of communities. The important work of Prashant and his team perfectly complements and builds on these ongoing efforts.”

According to the UMass News Office, the CarbonFirst team envisions building a self-powered, decentralized network of computing hardware, solar batteries, and free cooling hubs that are widely distributed. This is a reversal of the dominant trend in cloud computing, which concentrates computing centers, and energy needs, at only a few locations. Such distributed cloud and edge computing is more easily able to leverage local renewable energy sources.

The News Office article notes that the team also plans to “virtualize the energy system,” which means designing software that can monitor its own energy needs and carbon emissions. If the energy needs at a specific location exceed local renewable energy sources, computing applications can seamlessly move to another site that has surplus renewable energy.

And since the massive, energy-intensive, cloud-computing centers will be around far into the future, the team will be engineering digital carbon-capping policies that track an application’s use of traditional grid-based carbon emissions and restricts energy to renewable sources after reaching the cap.

Irwin and his lab are a perfect fit for this $3-million research project. He directs the Sustainable Computing Lab at UMass Amherst, which focuses on designing distributed software systems with an emphasis on improving efficiency and sustainability.

As Irwin says, “We focus on two primary areas: improving the efficiency of large-scale computer systems, particularly data center, cloud, and edge platforms; and improving the efficiency of large-scale cyber-physical systems, including electricity, building, and transportation systems.”

Irwin adds that “My lab has been working in the area of sustainable, low-carbon computing for nearly a decade. This project's topic really gets to the core of the work the lab has been doing since its inception.”

According to Irwin, “As illustrated by VMware's role, sustainable computing has also recently become much more important to industry due to the increasing energy consumption and carbon footprint of cloud data centers and a growing awareness of its impact on climate change. While this is a new project, its foundation derives from work in low-carbon computing that we have been doing over many years.” (May 2021)

Read the VMware press release on the projects.