Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Is the Internet too power hungry?

Two articles appeared in The Guardian over the weekend that are worth a mention. The first was a full page item about how much power the internet uses and the consequences. The paper quotes Subodh Bapat, vice-president at Sun Microsystems as saying that "In an energy-constrained world, we cannot continue to grow the footprint of the internet … we need to rein in the energy consumption". He goes on to say that "We need more data centres, we need more servers. Each server burns more watts than the previous generation and each watt costs more".

The article goes on to say that a secondary result is that the computer industry's carbon emissions are increasing drastically and 'leapfrogging other sectors like the airline industry that are more widely known for their negative environmental impact'.

One issue the article raises is that tracking internet energy use is difficult because company power consumption are rarely made public. Rich Brown, an energy analyst at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, is quoted as saying "Google is probably the best example: they see it as a trade secret: how many data centres they have, how big they are, how many servers they have." Although it does go on to say that "Google was among the first internet companies to take action to reduce its footprint by developing its own data centres — but even though it pumped an estimated $2.3bn into infrastructure projects last year, it remains unclear whether it is winning the battle".

I know this is just journalism, but the article does confuse a number of significant points about green IT that should to be part of a serious debate:

- Firstly, the problem is with data centres as a whole. The article mentions the likes of Google and YouTube, but these 'internet companies' represent only one area of internet use and an even smaller proportion of data centres (if anyone has actual figures I would be interested to hear). The article quotes one study that suggested that US data centres used 61bn kilowatt hours of energy in 2006, 1.5% of the entire electricity usage of the US. Every company of any size will have some sort of data centre and they all contribute to this total.

- The use of the internet is not just additional power use. The growth of software as a service (SaaS) is partly because of the reduced need for resources on the end-users' desks. With greater efficiency at the data centre, the net result should be a saving in energy use (although that might depend on circumstances). Similarly, virtual desktops generated at data centres have the capability to reduce desktop power use.

'Each server burns more watts than the previous generation' is not necessarily true and certainly doesn't need to be. Server energy is coming under closer scrutiny as manufacturers publish energy consumption (and TCO) figures and the new Energy Star rating for servers is due this month, which will add significant weight.

- A great deal is being done to reduce data centre power; it's the focus of much of green IT activity and for renewable energy schemes. See blogs on proposed centres in Lockerbie and also a tidal-powered data centre.

- It is true that Google is reluctant to talk about its power use, withholding data from the CDP for example, and can (and should) be criticised for that. Nevertheless, the company is active around climate change (as a search of this blog will show). Google is, in any case, a poor example of an industry that is notable for its efforts in reducing power usage, as CDP submissions show.

- Having said all that, since the use of computers is an essential part of reducing emissions elsewhere in an organisation, it is inevitable that the use of IT, and hence associated emissions, will increase. We cannot hope to make progress in reducing climate change impacts without IT, and IT means data centres.

- Finally, perhaps the main comment to make is that computer use is an integral part of business and economic development. If we want to limit data centre emissions then we need to restrict IT use, which means limiting economic growth and market development. That means a different sort of capitalism. Perhaps an inevitable long-term debate.

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