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Power and the Internet

(by A. Schiffler)

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.
-- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_platform

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.
-- http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1617/MR1617.sum.pdf

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.
-- http://news.netcraft.com/archives/web_server_survey.html

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.
-- http://www.tomshardware.com/2005/11/21/the_mother_of_all_cpu_charts_2005/page4.html

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.
-- http://www.newsfactor.com/perl/story/19992.html

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 ...

Update (2-Jun-06):

Some related links -  Scott McNealy's eco-friendly challenge - ecoComputing Update Center

Update (14-Jun-06)

NYT Article - Hiding in Plain Sight, Google Seeks More Power ... its more like 450K Servers for Google soon. Heck, they build besides a river like a power plant. Also, Microsoft seems to be aiming to be the king of the hill with 800K server by 2011!

By aschiffler | June 01, 2006 | News & Trends


There is a dam next to where Google is building its facility in Oregon. Power generating capacity: 1.8 million kilowatts.

# Posted by: Marc-O., le June 15, 2006

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