File Under: Events, servers

PDC 2008: SensorMap Is Some Hot (and Cool) Tech

Los Angeles — Microsoft has already left its mark on software, consumer devices, gaming and the web. Next, the company is turning its attention to green technology, environmental research and effects climate change.

At its annual Professional Developers Conference, the company debuted some new distributed computing technology the Microsoft Research team has created to collect data on energy use, transportation efficiency and global climate change.

During Wednesday morning’s keynote, Microsoft Research’s Feng Zhao showed off the pocket-sized devices his MSR SenseWeb team created to monitor any number of environmental factors. Microsoft has deployed hundreds of these sensors, each no bigger than a cell phone, around downtown Seattle, Singapore and Taipei, in the mountains near Davos, Switzerland and glaciers in Juneau, Alaska.

Each sensor records information about wind speed, temperature, humidity and other metrics. The devices are customized for each location — the sensors in Davos are connected to high-tension power lines, and they measure shortwave radiation. The ones in Seattle have cameras and study traffic patterns. The sensors on the Alaskan glacier measure water discharge.

Anyone can go to the SensorMap website to dig in to the sensor data, view time-based graphs and generate custom reports. The site will remain a public source of data for tracking changes in the environment.

As Microsoft Research’s director Rick Rashid quipped, “We’re using the cloud to keep track of clouds.”

It seems purely altruistic, but there’s a practical reason for Microsoft’s investment — the company is using the same tech to monitor the data centers which will power its new Windows Azure cloud computing platform. As the company builds the physical infrastructure for Azure, it’s also been installing sensors and feeding data into what it calls the Data Center Genome project. The sensors measure energy usage, heat and power distribution and efficiency within the warehouse-sized server complexes.

Zhao showed what the Genome data looks like. He revealed that hundreds of sensors had been deployed throughout the Los Angeles convention center, which is hosting the conference. On the stage’s jumbo screen, he showed a satellite photo of the building with a overlaying grid marking the energy sensor array.

He played back the collected data as an animated heat map, sped up over time, to show heat rising in parts of the building as attendees filed in to view the previous day’s Windows 7 keynote, then fanned out into the sessions and the expo hall afterwards.

It gave a detailed view of exactly how efficiently the air conditioning system cooled the building — including huge blue spots where the HVAC vents were pumping chilled air into areas of the hall that were entirely empty and devoid of people for hours.