[iDC] Power and the Internet

Andreas Schiffler aschiffler at ferzkopp.net
Thu Jun 1 15:37:13 EDT 2006

I'd like to make a quick ecologically motivated post to the list.

It is amazing how easy it is to forget and ignore a simple fact: the 
Internet with all its "free" communication and information  is a big 
energy wasting, power sucking HOG of a construction. Once you've read 
the numbers below, there can be no doubt why there is a digital divide 
and Africans don't need a donation of our old PCs: only the affluent can 
afford to "plug-in" and operate that kind of juice-sucking machinery in 
the first place.

Take Google for a start: Google operates one of the largest 
computer-clusters on the planet, to provide us with a sub-second search 
result (and the ads that go with it). They run upwards of 250K servers, 
collectively consuming a staggering 20 Megawatts of power for a nice 
electricity bill: 175 Gigawatt-hours per year - almost a Million Dollars 
a month. And that's just their server farm, never mind the offices and 
equipment that connects it to the rest of the world. -- 

At the time when "Energy-Star" labels went onto most Dell PCs in 1999, 
the experts were discussing the total power consumption of office 
equipment and network infrastructure. An estimate of 74 TeraWatt-hours 
(TWh) per year is estimated up. The Internet barely makes a blip in the 
total (copiers and laser-printers are just way better "consumers" than 
modems), with telecommunications equipment taking about 5-10% of this 
total or about 7Twh/y ... note that this is in 1999 and for the US only. 
-- http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/net-energy-studies.html

A few year later in 2002-2003, the reports were refined and give a 
number of scenarios with interesting sounding names like "Zaibatsu", 
"Cybertopia" and "Net Insecurity" which solidify a new conservative 
estimate to around 3.5% of TOTAL power consumption. -- 

Today usage is further up (as usage grows), so we can assume a  
conservative level of 4% of total power consumption, factor in the 4TW 
of US usage in 2006 and get a nice amount of 1401 TWh/year (including 
all the office equipment again). Thus our 5% Internet portion, is now at 
a whopping 70 TWh/year - perfectly in line with the 10-fold grows in 
hostnames from 1999 to today as reported by Netcraft. -- 

Will the trend continue. Sure it will! With more always-on-devices and 
entertainment platforms like the PS3 that would be considered a 
supercomputer just 10 years ago, we will definitely continue to use more 
power for our IT needs. Even though companies such as Apple like to put 
a positive spin on it -- 
http://www.apple.com/environment/energyefficiency/ -- the fact is, that 
current hardware (CPUs, video cards and even networking equipment) will 
use more power. And new operating systems like Microsoft's Vista, which 
will require a 3D accelerator card (the second larges power consumer in 
a PC) - a software move that will push for more transistors running at 
higher speeds on Millions of desks. Thermal design is really the primary 
limiting factor in microchip design today and current processors burn up 
as much as 100W of power when in use. -- 

But hey, I forgot one more thing: The production costs for all the 
equipment that runs the show! Its a bit like the hybrid-car-connundrum: 
Forget hybrids, but give me a car that lasts 5 more years - that's 
green. Because on a whole, the longer lasting car will probably save 
more energy than driving one of the latest battery-powered gizmos would 
- because a lot of energy is spend on making the car in the first place. 
The same applies to the tech equipment: Five new computers over a period 
of 10 years (28GJ) is about two-thirds of a car (47GJ) in terms of 
energy consumption for production. -- 

So this leaves my environmental conscience - as tech worker, full-time 
programmer, dare I say internet-addict - with quite a bad feeling about 
the whole thing and one can only hope that technological advances will 
turn the trend around in the near future. As an individual, I think one 
can try to do more with less,  keep the old stuff and live with simpler 
cooler-running technology as long as possible. But in the end it leaves 
me still a searching for practical answers ... Maybe after we get this 
email, we can all turn off our monitors for 1 minute (and save some 
power, maybe the planet). ;-)

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