Designing Application Software for Energy-efficient Performance

By Nancy Nicolaisen

Personal computers are designed to be in processor idle 75% of the time but in fact might more realistically be estimated to be idle in excess of 90% of the time because of the effects of imposed waits for user input, server response, and resource availability. An idle processor is available to sleep and, while in a sleep state, can save most of the energy it would otherwise consume from actively executing. At least on the client side, if all of the theoretical energy-saving potential of processor sleep states were realized, end user energy use could shrink by fantastical amounts with no apparent sacrifice of functionality or productivity.

This, however, is not today’s status quo. For various reasons, users sometimes intentionally configure client systems not to sleep, and it is not uncommon for application software to inadvertently (or intentionally) prevent CPUs from entering sleep states. Application developers can’t do anything about the former. However, there is a lot they can do to make sure the sophisticated laptop and tablet solutions they design, code, and deploy are energy efficient. In addition, if targeting a thin client, developers have to be aware of the back-end servers and how they could affect the operation and power envelope for that thin client.

Follow Best Practices for Creating Energy-efficient Client Device Applications

From an application developer’s point of view, a key tactic for achieving energy-efficient software performance is effective handling of sleep state transitions. A few general rules can go a long way toward accomplishing this goal-for example:

  • Design applications that allow screens to darken and disks to idle by avoiding behaviors that unnecessarily prevent systems from remaining in a sleep state. Moving from sleep states to full activity states requires some energy, thus, develop algorithms to not keep waking idle processors unnecessarily.
  • Where possible, eliminate code that keeps processors from transitioning to sleep states.
  • Employ development frameworks that allow an app to be respectful of sleep status and resilient in handling nonessential workloads.
  • To prevent users from disabling sleep, become more context aware, and take steps to ensure that systems don’t enter sleep states when users are passively interacting with them (e.g., watching or listening).
  • Develop power-aware strategies for handling timers and looping. Investigate the use of compiler switches that unroll deterministic loops, and make other adjustments that reduce the overall number of instructions executed (e.g., remove polling).
  • Use energy-aware tools to identify patterns of processor use in your apps.

A well-designed app should have little impact on overall energy consumption when it is open but idle, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1. A key energy management principle: Idle apps should have negligible impact on power use.

Tools And Techniques for Evaluating and Optimizing Application Energy Consumption Performance

Unlike many types of optimization, developers can’t see or infer symptoms of poor application energy performance. To make real progress toward improved client-side application energy efficiency, you need to employ power performance optimization tools and techniques. Figure 2 shows the results for 15 applications in a study. The chart shows two things: the average power over baseline (in Watts) and the percentage impact of that power draw over baseline. For example, Instant Messenger-4 running at idle caused the platform power draw to increase to 1.7 Watts, or 21 percent higher than system idle without the application running. This idle power draw affected battery life by approximately 4 hours. The conclusion from this study is that applications within the same category can exhibit different idle power behaviors.

Figure 2. Analyzing app power performance behaviors “in the wild” can be complex.

Imbuing client-side applications with power awareness isn’t difficult, but it is something that must be done with deliberate intention. For app developers, this is a matter of finding and using frameworks and instrumentation that help validate good designs and discover the flaws in program logic that need remediation.

Intel® Energy Checker

The Intel® Energy Checker software development kit (SDK) provides developers with a way to analyze how applications consume power. This information is key to optimization, because gross power usage is far from being the whole story. Real efficiency demands an understanding of exactly how an app’s power consumption relates to its work output. For example, power sinks can be the result of poorly integrated legacy code, duplication of effort in libraries and components, frivolous output activities, and the like.

Finding app behaviors that waste energy can be as challenging as finding memory leaks and other sublethal application flaws. Symptoms can be so subtle that it’s impossible to diagnose problems without instrumented code and a controlled, self-documenting test environment. Fortunately, this is precisely what Intel® Energy Checker provides. This SDK allows developers to:

  • Evaluate app productivity versus power consumption
  • Instrument code to report specific metrics about operations performed, timings, and collateral conditions
  • Generate large performance data sets using a variety of execution regimes
  • Evaluate the power consumption impacts of alternative libraries, drivers, and frameworks
  • Validate optimizations and remediation
  • Instrument apps in ways that allow customers and third-party testers to certify apps as energy efficient

What Intel® Energy Checker Offers Client App Developers

The Intel® Energy Checker SDK is a full-featured testing and validation facility. Its fundamental layer comprises a counter application programming interface (API) that allows direct measurement of app productivity. The ability to export and import counters provides a mechanism for analyzing how efficiently apps work with one another and the system overall.

Intel® Energy Checker’s companion build and scripting tools allow a means of analyzing code for which source is not available or can’t practically be built with inline instrumentation. Command-line utilities allow Intel® Energy Checker tools and data streams to interoperate with native Windows* and Linux* counters and utilities, making Oracle* Solaris 10–, Mac OS X*–, and Linux* MeeGo-based apps susceptible to evaluation by Intel® Energy Checker testing and validation.

One of the biggest advantages the Intel® Energy Checker toolset offers is its support for a broad variety of application development regimes. To help developers get up to speed with their projects, the SDK shipped with sample applets demonstrating how to employ it in the following situations:

  • With threading
  • Called from Java*
  • Called from C#
  • Called from Objective-C
  • With Linux system information utilities
  • CPU use histogram generator tools
  • Cluster energy efficiency
  • PL sampling measurements

The suite supports a majority of the common application programming languages in use today, including C, C++, C#, Objective-C, Java*, PHP, and Perl.

Using Microsoft Joulemeter to Analyze Energy Efficiency Performance

Joulemeter from Microsoft* Research is focused on creating modeling and optimization tools to assist system architects, administrators, and developers in improving the energy efficiency of computing infrastructures. The central concentrations of the Joulemeter Research Program are on modeling and optimizing power use by computational infrastructure of all types and scales. This information is critical, because to achieve real energy savings, systems have to be optimized from end to end. Even lightweight mobile clients have to be aware of the impacts of their behavior on back-end servers, such as whether they will affect the operation’s overall power performance.

The Joulemeter Research Project has published the lightweight stand-alone Joulemeter application* for Windows* 7 laptops and desktops. The app estimates the power consumption of a single computer by tracking resource usage (CPU saturation, screen backlighting, antenna power use, and the like); from these measurements, Joulemeter forecasts system power consumption.

Intel® Battery Life Analyzer

The Intel® Battery Life Analyzer (BLA) is a lightweight tool that monitors battery life on computers running the Windows* operating system. Empirically evaluating energy-related application performance on battery-powered systems can sometimes yield impressive gains with relatively minor changes in application code. BLA helps developers identify opportunities to create “application idle” state converge on platform idle states. In particular, BLA gets around a problem from which most power management and accounting application programming interfaces (APIs) suffer. Inherently, accounting APIs have to work with sampled data, recorded at timer tick intervals (on the order of 15.6 msec). Therefore, if a software operation starts on a timer tick but ends before the next tick, it can’t be detected by metrics that use full tick granularity.

Although this sounds like a negligible shortcoming, it isn’t. Many isochronous operations (think media handling) fall into this category, and such operations can easily become huge fractions of a platform’s overall workload. In contrast, BLA uses fine-grained process information based on microsecond scale time stamps. BLA records both a given activity’s starts and stops. This precision provides not only a more accurate picture of power utilization; it is also a far more complete one. (For a rigorous treatment of this topic, you can find a link to the Intel white paper, “Energy Efficient Platforms-Considerations for Application Software and Services,” in the Helpful Links section.)

Mobile Device Battery Life Conservation

More and more, batteries are a key source of power for computing platforms. In early 2011, smart phones outsold PCs 4 to 1 worldwide. Given this, expect to see the energy efficiency of mobile apps become a key concern for all types of software consumers. Fortunately, mobile developers are generally pretty savvy about energy efficiency, as battery-operated devices have always demanded that discipline of them.

All mobile development frameworks include methods for detecting power states (connected to AC wall current or running on DC battery power), testing battery levels, and scaling system and application behaviors in response to energy regimes. Apple*, Symbian*, Microsoft*, RIM*, and other mobile device vendors have worked over the years to establish general guidelines that help app developers be good power-management citizens on small devices. Many of these rules translate easily to laptop and desktop apps that are being reworked to improve power performance:

  • Replace timer-based designs with event-driven or interrupt-driven logic.
  • Avoid using timers as a high-resolution time source. If there is no workable alternative, ensure that timer resolution is reset to the system default when it is not actively engaged in its specific task.
  • Apps designed to provide passive display of content should explicitly increase display dimming timeout to accommodate playback using power request or availability APIs. The requests should be explicitly rescinded when the app is minimized or inactive.
  • Screen savers and the like should not alter dimming timeouts. Unless there is an aesthetic reason for them, screen savers do nothing to maintain the health of LCD monitors and are simply wasting energy. Let screens dim, if practical.

Ineffective management of sleep states can dramatically multiply an app’s power consumption. Effective use of parallelization, coalescing tasks that are difficult to parallelize in a single thread, and avoidance of excessive requirement for synchronization among threads are all strategies that can help reduce the number of sleep state transitions an app triggers (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Effective management of sleep states is key to good app energy performance.


Managing the energy performance of application software may reasonably be expected to become a core competency for developers in the fairly near term, as economic and environmental considerations shape thinking on software engineering best practices. Many good tools exist for this purpose, and the Intel® Energy Checker SDK can help to validate and refine energy-optimization efforts of client software developers targeting both the desktop and mobile platforms.

Helpful Links and Additional information on Power Management Tools and Resources

About the Author

Nancy Nicolaisen is an author, researcher, and veteran software developer specializing in mobile and embedded device technologies. Her feature articles, columns, and analyses have been internationally circulated in publications such as BYTE, PC Magazine, Windows Sources, Computer Shopper, Dr. Dobbs Journal of Software Engineering, and Microsoft Systems Journal. She is the author of three books-Making Windows Portable: Porting Win32 to Win CE (2002, John Wiley & Sons); The Practical Guide to Debugging 32 Bit Windows Applications (1996, McGraw Hill); and The Visual Guide to Visual C++ (1994, Ventana Press)-available in five foreign-language editions. In 2007, she served as technical advisor for the development of the Microsoft Professional Education course “Designing, Building and Managing Wireless Networks.” Ms. Nicolaisen is currently active in exploring open source technologies and trends for mobile, embedded, and wireless devices.

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