[LINK] It's big, expanding and has a carbon footprint to match

Bernard Robertson-Dunn brd at iimetro.com.au
Sat Jan 24 13:36:23 AEDT 2009

It's big, expanding and has a carbon footprint to match
23/01/2009 11:00:01 PM

A riddle. It's invisible but ubiquitous, and growing exponentially. Even 
as it provides the capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, its own 
carbon footprint is ever larger. It is the fuel of clouds and the stuff 
that races through fibre optic cables at the speed of light.

It is, of course, the internet, or more specifically, Information and 
Communication Technology (ICT). At institutions as diverse as Melbourne 
University, and its counterparts in the University of California (UC) 
system in San Diego and Irvine, it frames the next generation of virtual 
meetings, with instantaneous transmission of image and sound, from near 
or far.

Larry Smarr is 54, and has lived through what amounts to multiple 
generations of the life of the worldwide web, from conception in the 
mid-1980s, when he fostered the network of connected computers known as 
the National Science Foundation Net, to the ultra high-speed present.

As Smarr explained it at the West Coast Leadership Dialogue conference 
here in Palo Alto, California, the future of the internet can be viewed 
in two dimensions. The first is to be faster, using fibre-optic lines to 
transfer large volumes of information almost instantaneously - no longer 
just as pictures or text on a screen, but ultra high-definition, skin 
tone-perfect live images, at 10,000 megabytes per second. The second is 
to be both clean and be cleaner, reversing its current position, as a 
significant and growing contributor to the carbon dioxide production 
that the vast majority of scientists believe is the principal cause of 
global climate change.

In the United States, the power consumed by computer data centres 
exceeded the demand of the nation's TV sets three years ago. In 
Australia, 200 million tonnes of its annual emission of 576 million 
tonnes of carbon dioxide is caused by electricity, gas and water, with 
information and communication technology accounting for 20 per cent of 
those emissions. Globally, this technology produces roughly the same 
volume of emissions as the aviation industry.

But that is the very least of it. Consider that the amount of raw data 
in the world - balance sheets, recipes, form guides, the novels that 
Google is gradually digitising - doubles every four years. Consider, 
further, that only 2 per cent of that data is digital, an amount that 
doubles every 16 months. This is the staggering volume of stuff that 
another speaker at the Stanford University conference, a leading 
software and hardware executive, explained, must be "processed, stored, 
moved, visualised and shared".

The power demand works in two ways, with every watt of electricity used 
in processing requiring a compensatory half watt in cooling, the result, 
Smarr explained, of silicon chips that have become smaller, faster and 
infinitely more complex, but also hotter.

This equation is sending the biggest companies if not off the grid, 
certainly further afield. Consider Google, with its headquarters a short 
drive south of here, on Silicon Valley's El Camino Real.

The search engine monolith owns hundreds of thousands of servers, and is 
building a massive new data processing centre in suburban Portland to 
house them. There it will draw on the 85-megawatt line that once 
serviced a nearby aluminium smelter (now decommissioned) to power the 
servers, and the waters from the dammed Columbia River, to cool them.

That line will barely cover Google's needs. An article in Harper's 
magazine suggested that within three years, the Portland data centre 
would need 103 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 82,000 homes.

Another data centre, in Canada, is being built next to a 
hydro-electricity plant. Smarr said the CSIRO is looking to do the same 
thing in Australia. It is co-owner with Australian tertiary institutions 
of a fibre-optic network that can move information at the rate of 1 
gigabit per second, or 250 times faster than the standard Sydney 
broadband connection.

"There's not a hydro site in the world that hasn't been visited by 
Google, Microsoft or Yahoo, to see if they can set up a data centre 
there," Smarr said. The data centres are the physical manifestation of 
the internet and ICT. They are also the places where the carbon 
footprint of the web will grow or shrink, if, instead of electricity, 
they can be run off alternate sources of energy such as solar, hydro or 
biofuel. The sense of urgency at the conference about addressing the 
internet's carbon footprint and its associated data storage, was real 
but had less to do with altruism about the planet's future and much more 
to do with the financial bottom line.


Bernard Robertson-Dunn
Canberra Australia
brd at iimetro.com.au

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