After attending a lecture on cutting power consumption of electronic devices, Kirk Cameron a decade ago started pondering electricity usage in the supercomputers he studied. Powering a big machine of that era, he discovered, cost almost $8 million a year, and technology on the horizon might eat up 10 times as much electricity. “That scared me,” says Cameron, a computer science professor at Virginia Tech. “The conventional wisdom at the time was that power would not be an issue.”
The realization spurred Cameron, now 40, to develop power management software that today is used on supercomputers—and now PCs—worldwide. While other power-saving programs do little more than turn off the monitor and largely ignore a computer’s central processing unit, Cameron says, his software manages the CPU much like a dimmer controls a light fixture. For reading, you’ll want full light, but for a romantic dinner, low light is just fine. “You tell the software how aggressive you want it to be,” says Cameron, a lifelong computer buff who started playing Pong on his grandfather’s Atari at age 5.
He also likens his software to cruise control in cars. But while cruise control will ease up on the accelerator as a car gathers speed when descending, it “doesn’t look ahead and say, ‘Hey, there’s a hill coming,’” Cameron says. “It just reacts.” In contrast, his program seeks out patterns to determine when a computer will need more power. He says users report electricity savings of 30 percent.
Cameron’s work caught the eye of tech staffers at Merrill Lynch (BAC), which was looking for ways to reduce the electric bills at its data centers. In 2007, Merrill paid Cameron to adapt his program for its big server farms. About the same time, Cameron co-founded a company called MiserWare to develop and market the software, licensing the technology from Virginia Tech, which owns the intellectual property rights to his work. By 2010 he had raised $1.5 million for the venture.
To test new ideas, MiserWare in 2008 created a version that runs on PCs. After MiserWare’s programmers gave the software to friends, many loved it and urged Cameron to offer it to the public. In April 2010, MiserWare introduced the program under the brand name Granola. Cameron says the software, which is free for home use, has been downloaded more than 300,000 times. After the earthquake in March shuttered nuclear power plants in Japan, Granola downloads in that country spiked as users tried to economize because of power shortages. Last year, MiserWare introduced an enterprise version that costs $6 to $8 annually per computer, and this fall Cameron began offering a package for servers. When Cameron first started working to cut power use by supercomputers, “people laughed” and said hardware makers would find a solution, he recalls. “They didn’t, and it’s still a problem.”