My March, 2011 Montana InBusinessMonthly column
Last month’s Western Montana InBusiness Monthly contained the first of my two-part series on the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center in Butte, and what chief consultant Earl Dodd is doing to push the growth of the green and high-tech industries in Montana. (Read here: Montana Should Benefit From Butte’s Supercomputer)
Established as a nonprofit in early 2009, the RMSC was in the news last fall because it offered free or subsidized use of the supercomputer – called “Big Sky” – to businesses in the state as a demonstration of what it can provide.
In addition, Dodd has been encouraging municipalities in the state to form citizen science and technology committees.
“One of the things we (the RMSC) proposed to the Butte Chamber of Commerce – and the same thing I’m willing to make to any municipality – is to form a science and technology committee to get citizens in the community starting to think about technology and using the supercomputer in Butte,” Dodd told me. And one town he has been working with is Missoula.
“In Missoula, we’ve had several meetings with the Mayor’s office and some businesses are looking for venture capital to be able to set up in Missoula,” Dodd said.
One of those businesses is called Wave Semiconductor, and it’s located in San Jose, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley.
Ken Wagner, vicepresident of business development, told me that Wave is involved in several “disruptive” technologies. Disruptive technology is that which shakes up a particular industry with big changes.
One of the new business units being proposed by Wave will use technology already being developed and expand it into another market for ultra-low-power microcontrollers and multicore processor chips. Each of those are tens of billions of dollar markets, Wagner told me.
Everywhere you look, there’s a microcontroller and a server farm. Microcontrollers are in everything from car airbags to washing machines to home alarm systems. Realistically, any product more sophisticated than a light switch either has a microcontroller or will have one in the near future.
And server farms are everywhere, too. Server farms are warehouses filled with computer servers and routers to feed the data requirements of all who use Internet services. Google and Facebook recently built huge server farms along the Columbia River because of the plentiful electric power.
But server farms already use around 2 percent of the electricity in the country right now, and that percentage is growing fast. And with microcontrollers in everyday products, energy consumption will only jump over the next few decades.
That’s where Montana and Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s energy policy initiative comes in, Wagner told me.
“We want to help get Montana known as the Energy State,” Wagner told me. “The products we are developing are disruptive in their low-power aspects, on the order of 10 times less power consumption.”
That’s why he’s talking with Earl Dodd and the RMSC about low-power multicore systems on chips.
“We are interested in working with governments to help fund and develop a disruptive new architecture in supercomputers,” he told me. “We want to work with Earl and the RMSC to help take what we have in San Jose and turn it into the next processor for supercomputers.“
Those processors will have 10,000 to 20,000 cores, rather than eight or 16 cores like current processors, resulting in incredible power, he said. And they will use much, much less power, too.
Can a disruptive technology from Silicon Valley help make Montana become even more of a leader in green energy?