Monitoring ecosystems the high-tech way

Microsoft Research continues to keep abreast of the green and earth-friendly trend in tech, debuting several eco-friendly products and prototypes during its Redmond-based developer “science fair” TechFest this week.

During the event, researcher Jie Lin showed off some energy-saving software geared toward power-guzzling data centres and super-racks. “The IT industry consumes a lot of energy, and a lot of IT devices are hosted in huge data centres that consume both actual energy that goes into the servers and devices, and the energy that goes toward cooling,” said Lin. “But more than half of the servers are often not doing anything. They have regular usage patterns, so if you know you’re not going to be using them, you should shut them down.”

Using the instant messaging Passport service as a test, Lin used software to shift the load, skewing as many packages to the smallest number of servers possible during slower times. The software resulted in a 30 per cent reduction in energy use among the servers tested.

This initiative is right in line with current trends, according to Info-Tech Research Group research consultant Aaron Hay.

“Dynamic allocation, with the virtualized install switching from one server to another so that you get the highest utility is definitely cropping up more and more,” he said. “We’re moving away from passive virtualization to a more dynamic model that’s almost like grid computing.”

Despite Microsoft’s announcement in January of its intended aggressive push into the virtualized utility infrastructure and “dynamic IT,” said Hay, the company is facing a tough battle.

“More and more companies (are doing virtualization)—it’s a really crowded market.”

Lin also showed off a small device with an antenna that gives users a more accurate depiction of the conditions inside the data centre. This, in turn, allows for better cooling techniques.

“They can build a mesh network among them to document heat and power consumption. Then, you can connect to a Web site to check on the data. This would allow you to raise the air-conditioning set-point temperature—data centres are usually overcooled,” said Lin.

The “science fair” also featured a large display from Microsoft’s Cambridge, England research centre, which showed off prototypes and products – in use internally and by academic peers – to keep the earth healthy, via climate, forest, and eco-system modeling, and bird-tracking.

Research software development engineer Martin Calsyn demonstrated the Discovery system, a speculative modeling software application that lets biology and ecology scientists input their data, without having to go through in-depth technical training. The program can then map out data flow, including information over time, visualizations, and comparisons to other scientists’ past and current data within the collaborative database, according to Calsyn, who showed several visualizations of climate and wind velocity laid on top of one another.

Discovery can also be used to track forestation levels, said research software development engineer Andreas Heil. He said that a forestry researcher with a decade’s worth of forest growth research under his arm was recently able to use the software to predict how forests will develop, based on his on-the-ground studies. “By using this canopy simulation, you can see how this certain species could take over,” Heil said.

Modeling also comes in handy when dealing with eco-systems, according to post-doctoral researcher Elizaveta Pachepsky. “There are more and more intersections between computer science and biological and evolutionary science,” she said. “But the software has to be accessible and easy to use.”

Pachepsky has helped develop a program that maps food webs among the mammals and plant life on the island of St. Maarten.

“Scientists have been tracking this over a decade, but the research has never been visualized,” she said. “Now we can estimate the effect that climate change will have on the eco-system, or create artificial eco-systems (that would aid with theorizing about the removal of a species or depletion of the fish stock, for instance),” she said. “[With this], we can simulate what’s going to happen.”

This modeling has already contributed to a better understanding of the environment—the island is home to more herbivores than previously thought, for example.

When tracking creatures, radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology has been helping researchers, too. Post-doctoral researcher Robin Freeman has been monitoring the vulnerable habitat and habits of a population of manx shearwater seabirds off the coast of England. His team has used RFID tags to create a sensor network that, in combination with a GPS system, allows them to track their comings and goings, their weight, and, over time, their presence in the eco-system, according to Freeman.

“Now we can get real-time information,” Freemand said. “They’re also programmed to be intelligent, so we can remotely reconfigure them, too. Before we had to go sticking our hands in their burrows (to adjust the tag settings) and risk getting bitten.”