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Saving power in Linux Systems

Hey there! It's an impromptu blog post. Originally I wrote this in response to this Reddit post, but it got rather longer than I anticipated and I ended up expanding on it just a teensy bit more and turning into this blog post.

Saving power in a Linux system can be necessary for a number of reasons, from reducing one's electricity bill to extending battery life.

There are a number of different factors to consider to reduce power usage, which I'll be talking about in this blog post. I will be assuming a headless Linux server for the purposes of this blog post, but these suggestions can be applicable to other systems too (if there's the demand I may write a follow up specifically about Arduino and ESP-based systems, as there are a number of tricks that can be applied there that don't work the same way for a full Linux system).

Of course, power usage is highly situationally dependant, and it's all about trade-offs: less convenience, increased complexity, and so on. The suggestions below are suggestions and rules of thumb that may or may not be applicable to your specific situation.

Hardware: Older hardware is less power efficient than newer hardware. So while using that 10yr old desktop as a server sounds like a great idea to reduce upfront costs, if your electricity is expensive it might be more cost-effective to buy a newer machine such as an Intel NUC or Raspberry Pi.

Even within the realms of Raspberry Pis, not every Raspberry Pi is created equal. If you need a little low-power outpost for counting cows in field with LoRa, then something like a Raspberry Pi Zero as a base might be more suitable than a fully Raspberry Pi 4B+ for example.

CPU architecture: Different CPU architectures have different performance / watt ratios. For example. AMD CPUs are - on the whole - more efficient than Intel CPUs as of 2021. What really matters here is the manufacturing size and density - e.g. a 7nm chip will be more power efficient than a 12nm or 14nm one.

ARM CPUs (e.g. Raspberry Pi and friends) are more efficient again (though the rule-of-thumb about manufacturing size & density does not hold true here). If you haven't yet bought any hardware for your next project, this is definitely worth considering.

Auto-on: Depending on your task, you might only need your device on for a short time each day. Most BIOSes will have a setting to automatically power on at a set time, so you could do this and then set the server to automatically power off when it has completed it's task.

Another consideration is automatically entering standby. This can be done with the rtcwake command. While not as power efficient as turning completely off, it should still net measurable power savings.

Firmware: Tools such as powertop (sudo apt install powertop on Debian-based systems) can help apply a number of optimisations. In the case of powertop, don't forget to add the optimisations you choose to your /etc/rc.local to auto-apply them on boot. Example things that you can optimise using powertop include:

  • Runtime power management for WiFi / Bluetooth
  • SATA power management

Disk activity: Again situationally dependent, but if you have a lot of disks attached to your server, reducing writes can have a positive impact on power usage. Tuning this is generally done with the hdparm command (sudo apt install hdparm). See this Unix Stack Exchange question, and also this Ask Ubuntu answer for more details on how this is done.

Software: Different applications will use different amounts of system resources, which in turn will consume different amounts of power. For example, GitLab is rather resource inefficient, but Gitea is much more efficient with resources. Objectively evaluating multiple possible candidate programs that solve your given problem is important if power savings are critical to your use-case.

Measuring resource usage over time (e.g. checking the CPU Time column in htop for example) is probably the most effective way of measuring this, though you'd want to devise an experiment where you run each candidate program in turn for a defined length of time and measure a given set of metrics - e.g. CPU time.

Measurement: Speaking of metrics, it's worth noting that while all these suggestions are interesting, you should absolutely measure the real power savings you get from implementing these suggestions. Some will give you more of a net gain for less work than others.

The best way I know of to do this is to use a power monitor like this one that I've bought previously and plugging your device into it, and then coming back a given amount of time later to record the total number of watt hours of electricity used. For USB devices such as the Raspberry Pi, if I remember rightly I purchased this device a while back, and it works rather well.

This will definitively tell you whether implementing a given measure will net you a significant decrease in power usage or not, which you can then weight against the effort required.

Art by Mythdael