While gaming and being a computer geek doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, I’m going to guess that my three regular readers are all interested in computer hardware and technology in general. If you typically visit Sprawl’s Scrawl for the usual gaming previews, reviews, and beta coverage, then perhaps you’ll want to skip this article, but if you are like me, your monthly power bill is a bit shameful.

Did you know that you can still have multiple computers and be conscious of your power bill? This starts simply by shutting down your machines at night, or at the very least, having them go to sleep. Obviously, when you aren’t gaming, it is pretty easy to set your system to hibernate. A regular 200-watt system will drop to a mere 2 watts of power usage while sleeping. This is a huge difference, and a huge savings. Let’s calculate assuming a nice round 20 cents per kilowatt-hour.

200 watts * 24 hrs * 30 days / 1000 watts = 61.2kWhr * $0.20 = $28.80 a month

In this week’s article, I wanted to share with you my experiences with power saving. I purchased one of those Kill-A-Watt devices that measure your power draw, and I’ve recently been obsessed with plugging things into it. I currently run an Alienware m15x i7 laptop as my primary system. This is where I do all my email, surfing, and it is also where I wrote this article. It pulls approximately 180 watts on average, and can pull a peak of 250 watts while booting up. It is a pretty power hungry system for a laptop.

I also run an E8400 Core2duo with an nVidia GTX470 graphics card as my gaming machine. This system has a solid state drive (SSD), which really helps to cut down on power usage while still having amazing performance. It is pretty cool to see the video card in action. What normally is a 200-watt system jumps to an astonishing 320 watts while running a full 3D game like Call of Duty Black Ops. Another important consideration here is the 24-inch monitor that draws an additional 50-60 watts. The gaming machine is by far the most power hungry machine in my house, which sacrifices everything for performance (as it should). Needless to say, I can run most games at a full 1920×1200 without skipping a beat.

Lastly, we have my file server. What started as a dial-up modem sharing system that ran Slackware Linux evolved into a full Windows 2003 Enterprise primary domain controller. Sure, my network doesn’t need a domain controller, but it has taught me a lot of stuff and has served as a wonderful development environment. My little dual core Pentium III 933 system has been put through a lot over the last 10 years. For being as old as it is, I was surprised to see it pulling 140 watts of power on average. When the five hard drives inside were all in use, the system peaked as high as 180 watts. While I was a bit surprised to see overall consumption almost as high as my laptop, I wasn’t too surprised to see so much power required for the old ATA hard drives to spin up.

Alienware Laptop: 180w 250w
Gaming Machine: 200w 320w
PIII Server: 140w 180w

Energy Efficient Upgrades:

What started this whole project was that I wished to upgrade my PIII server. It has served me well over the years, but Windows 2003 is coming to an end of life soon, and it will most certainly not run Windows 2008. It was time for me to upgrade. I knew I needed a 64-bit system this time around, and it probably should be at least dual core, so I began shopping. Having recently looked at my power bill, I wanted to make sure whatever I built wouldn’t be any worse than the 180 watts that my PIII server consumes. My initial research led me to the latest Atom processor from Intel. While these processors are typically meant for netbooks, some companies were beginning to use these processors in the datacenter. I figured if my PIII could handle Windows 2003 for a single user, surely this chip can handle Windows 2008.

After a little more hunting, I was lead to this barebones solution from Supermicro. Barebones in this case means you must purchase the memory and the hard drives, but everything else was included. The 5015A-EHF-D525 is based pretty much entirely on the low-powered solutions used in today’s consumer netbooks. The same technology that keeps your Asus Eee running for 10+ hours without recharging has been repurposed as a low-powered server that uses a mere 28 watts at peak usage!

Hard Drive Selection:

When considering power usage, anything with moving parts is going to consume a fair amount of power. For this reason, you do not want an excess of fans within the case. The Supermicro machine I built has a single tiny fan on the power supply, and a reasonably sized heat sink on the cpu. Also, this machine lacks a DVD drive, which means you must load the operating system using an external drive or across the network. It is worth noting that the SATA DVD-ROM drive I used to install the operating system would use an amazing 10 watts while in use. That is a 35% increase in power usage just to spin that disc!

Here are a few things I learned while purchasing hard drives for my low powered home server:

  • Solid-State – Purchase solid-state drives, if you can afford it. As there are no moving parts, the power usage on these is spectacular. As of writing, an 80GB drive will run you almost $200. You will want to use at least one of these as your boot drive.
  • Green Power Hard Drives – Western Digital and a number of hard drive manufacturers are selling new 3.5-inch “Green” drives. These drives will actually spin down when not in use to conserve power, and there is generally a noticeable lag time of a few seconds when spinning up again. These drives are perfect for storage solutions, but due to this “spin-down” nature, are not suitable for RAID environments. As of writing, 3TB is the largest drive available.
  • Notebook Drives – If you can’t avoid moving parts, why not use smaller ones? Notebook drives have come a long way, and you can get some pretty high quality ones that can be put in a RAID array. As of writing, there seems to be 1TB drives on the market, but the 640GB drives seem a bit more prevalent.
  • External USB Drives – Be careful with these guys, as it can be easy to overlook the power usage when using an external power brick. Try to find an external USB drive that will power solely on the port itself, which limits you currently at 1TB. This will still cost you as much as 15 watts, so only use an external drive for periodic backups and infrequently accessed storage.

I ended up purchasing a single solid-state drive for the operating system and two 640GB notebook drives from Western Digital. I had a choice between the “black” performance drives or the “blue” standard drives, and opted for the latter to conserve power usage. These drives are being used in a mirror RAID for movies, music, and the like.

So that is pretty much it. I’ve loaded a tiny 1U machine with Windows 2008 Enterprise edition and set this server up as a router, primary domain controller, file server, firewall, and web server on a system that can dance circles around my old PIII server for 1/5th of the power usage. You do not want to go this route for your gaming machine where performance is key, but for your second or third machine that serves a less-demanding purpose, it really does pay to be energy conscious. This server is a dual core, with hyper-threading, so it can handle a handful of users without issue. I am really pleased at its performance, and the amount of power it requires.

I can’t wait to see what my power bill is like next month! My hope is that it is no longer embarrassing enough to share with you all.

Although… it probably doesn’t help that I’ve been running the heater either…