Linux captures the 'green' flag, beats Windows 2008 power-saving measures

Independent tests show that Red Hat Linux pulls as much as 12% less power than Windows 2008 on identical hardware

Our tests point to Linux as the winner of the green flag by margins that topped out at 12%. But we must note that our results are full of stipulations imposed by our test bed, and, therefore, as many classified ads might say: your wattage may vary.

Ensuring your servers stamp as small a carbon footprint as possible on the earth and in your data center can encompass everything from making sure they are shipped in recyclable packaging to hiring an analyst who can predict the total life-cycle environmental impact.

For this test, we examined power consumption as a way to judge whether Windows Server 2008 or Linux is, in fact, the 'greener' operating system. As the price of power hits record heights, power reduction mechanisms shipping within an operating system should play a key role in you energy conservation plan.

Our tests point to Linux as the winner of the green flag by margins that topped out at 12%. But we must note that our results are full of stipulations imposed by our test bed, and as the more truthful car advertisements might warn -- your wattage may vary.

We ran multiple power consumption tests using Windows Server 2008 Enterprise Edition, Red Hat's Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 5.1 and SUSE Enterprise Linux 10 SP1 on four, popular 1U server machines, one each from Dell and IBM and two from HP. The results showed that while Windows Server 2008 drew slightly less power in a few test cases when it had its maximum power saving settings turned on, it was RHEL that did the best job of keeping the power draw in check across the board.

Shades of Green: The results of our test measuring power consumption of Windows and Linux servers Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.1 was the most frugal with its power draw through our tests when tested in either performance or power savings modes. The savings also transcended all server models used in our test bed as RHEL drew the least amount of power in 13 of 16 test scenarios, showing a close to a 10 percent savings in power over Windows Server 2008 in several cases. All measurements are reported in watts consumed by the specific operating system/hardware server combination listed.
Server Hardware PlatformsWindows Server 2008 Power DrawSUSE Enterprise Linux 10 Power DrawRed Hat Enterprise Linux 5.1 Power DrawAverage Linux Power DrawWindows Server 2008 percentage of Average Linux Power DrawWindows Server 2008 percentage of lowest Linux Power Draw
 Quiescent test with operating system Power Savings settings applied
IBM x335071.873.171.772.499.17100.14
Dell 1950200.7207.5205.7206.697.1497.57
HP DL-160 G5*165.6160.3163.0n/an/a
HP DL-360 G5232.0223.2221.1222.2104.43104.93
 Quiescent test with operating system Power Savings settings applied
IBM x335073.773.472.973.2100.75101.10
Dell 1950220.4209.2205.4207.3106.32107.30
HP DL-160 G5167.7165.6164.3165.0101.67102.07
HP DL-360 G5239.1238.0233.7235.9101.38102.31
 Active test with operating system Power Savings settings applied
IBM x335074.474.675.875.298.94100.27
Dell 1950220.4210.0200.7205.4107.33109.82
HP DL-160 G50*166.9159.5163.2n/an/a
HP DL-360 G5234.3241.0229.9235.599.51101.91
 Active test with operating system tuned for performance, not power savings
IBM x335087.879.678.379.0111.21112.13
Dell 1950230.8217.1209.5213.3108.20110.17
HP DL-160 G5155.7168.2165.3166.893.3794.19
HP DL-360 G5244.6242.0239.6240.8101.58102.09

* Could not be tested in power savings mode due to firmware/BIOS compatibility issues.

All measurements are in Watts used in real time taken at over 1000 sample points taken over each four-hour test run.

All data was measured after the server under test was booted, then running for more than two minutes as power-up times skew the average incorrectly.

The variable settings allowed by both Windows and Linux – which let you toggle between having a high energy efficient server vs. a high performing one – can certainly have an impact on overall server consumption. But again, your mileage will also vary given the workloads you place on your servers and whether or not you're using popular virtual machine hypervisors to support multiple operating system instances on the same physical server (see related story).

The edge in either test category will likely not last as operating systems become more finely tuned to work in lockstep with advanced server chipsets, and as additional coding techniques that more closely tie operating systems and applications to power considerations take hold across the industry.

Part of the current "green" operating system difficulty lies in the disconnect between how an operating system and its applications can be optimized to let the underlying system quiet itself down to a lower power-consuming state while at the same time not sacrificing the ability to react to servicing application (and therefore system and user) needs.

In our testing, we found that the CPU 'throttle-back' mechanism – the main technique for how an operating system can aid in reducing a server's energy draw -- requires new firmware and updated drivers that specifically support that feature. Only the IBM x3350 and the HP DL-360 G5 arrived ready for optimal power conservation. The HP DL-160 and Dell 1950 servers required several updates throughout our six-week test period to accommodate the CPU throttling features of Windows 2008 and Linux.

We truly know from the trenches that it really isn't easy getting your servers to be green.

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