[AI] Can we stop the internet destroying our planet?

Sanjay Prasad ilovecold at gmail.com
Sat Jan 26 07:22:00 EST 2008

WHEN the first comprehensive report in years to examine energy use
by computer servers was published in February 2007, it was
greeted with surprise by industry insiders. Jonathan Koomey, a
staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in
California, found that worldwide power consumption by servers had
doubled between 2000 and 2005. "Everyone thought CO2 emissions
were a problem for transportation and big energy," says Bill St
Arnaud of Canarie, Canada's internet development organisation in
Ottawa, Ontario.

Since then a raft of studies  have highlighted the rocketing
energy demands made by computers . One of them, a report from
UK-based Global Action Plan, puts carbon dioxide emissions from
information and communications technology on the same level as
that of the aviation industry - 2 per cent of global emissions.

As it turns out, many of the tech titans were already on the case.
A week after Koomey's report came out, industry giants including
Microsoft, Intel, Dell, IBM and Sun Microsystems forged a
collaboration known as the Green Grid . Their aim was to attack a
host of hardware and software inefficiencies in data centres -
farms of servers that store and retrieve online information. They
regard the problem as so large that collaboration is essential.
"There was a recognition that there was a problem in energy
efficiency in data centres that was too vast to be solved by any
one company," says Green Grid director Lawrence Lamers of
software company VMware in Palo Alto, California, which makes the
so-called virtualisation software regarded by many companies as a
prime way to save energy.

At about the same time, energy consultancies identified the
problems associated with  and began to float ideas for possible
solutions. These included solar and hydroelectric power, and
converting alternating current from the mains to direct current
(DC) just once in the data centre, instead of repeating the
process many times at different servers, as happens today (New
Scientist , 15 December 2006, p 24).

Although some data centres, including Google's, use some renewable
energy, these measures are unlikely to be enough. DC conversion
requires significant changes to infrastructure, and companies are
looking for technologies they can implement immediately.

Green Grid director, Mark Monroe of Sun Microsystems, points out
that another major factor driving companies to reduce energy
consumption is concern about supply. "We are trying to make data
centres efficient enough so that they don't outstrip energy
availability," he says.

The need for greener computing is huge. Whenever you download
music, send an email, access medical records, or make a credit
card transaction, the actions are processed in a data centre.
"Three years ago, YouTube didn't exist," Lamers says. "Now there
are hundreds of millions of videos being downloaded by millions
of users. Yahoo is giving away free email with unlimited storage.
Do you know how many servers are required for millions of users
to store gazillions of emails?"

The Green Grid's biggest achievement to date is a first attempt at
finding a standardised way to measure the efficiency of data
centres. This would allow customers to compare centres and
companies to identify the worst offenders and upgrade them.

Some individual member companies are already moving beyond this.
Take IBM, which provides data storage and number crunching
services for the financial, pharmaceutical and retail sectors. In
May it pledged to invest $1 billion annually in a project called
Big Green , which aims to double computing capacity at IBM's data
centres without increasing energy consumption. "This is
absolutely one of IBM's key plays right now," says Chris Scott,
head of IBM data centre services for north-east Europe. "It's
saving us money, it's giving us growth capacity, and it's the
right thing to do for the environment."

Like many members of the Green Grid, IBM is making virtualisation
software a central part of its greening strategy. First used in
the 1960s as a way to divide large mainframe computers into
smaller parts, each capable of performing its own small task
simultaneously, virtualisation is now seen as the low-hanging
fruit in data centres' green transition.

Virtualisation software creates multiple "virtual machines" (VMs),
which are layers of software that emulate a particular type of
hardware. Each VM sits between the actual hardware and a specific
software application, and looks like hardware to the application.
Running applications on VMs instead of directly on the hardware
means the separate applications can't interfere with each other,
and if one application crashes, it doesn't affect the others.

When servers replaced mainframes, there was no need to partition
them with virtualisation as each server was built to execute one
application. But the processing power of servers has now
increased to the point that running only one program per server
typically means using less than 15 per cent of its capacity. The
obvious answer is to run several applications on a single server,
as with mainframes.

In 2001, VMware introduced the first virtualisation software
written specifically for the type of servers widely used in data
centres. "It makes the difference between buying 10 servers or
buying one," says Bogomil Balkansky at VMware. "Customers are
able to save 70 to 80 per cent on energy use. It's the best way
to immediately and dramatically reduce power consumption in the
data centre." In August, as a result, IBM was able to replace
3900 of its Intel servers with 33 larger ones with more efficient
 (New Scientist , 10 March, p 26). "That is an 80 per cent
reduction in energy consumption and an 85 per cent reduction in
space," Scott says.

Virtualisation and multicore chips aren't the only ways to green
data centres. Other Green Grid members believe that an important
contribution is improving the efficiency of applications
themselves. Arjan van de Ven, a software engineer at chip maker
Intel, is leading an initiative called Lesswatts.org  to make the
popular Linux open-source operating system more efficient.

Many companies, including Google, run their data centres on Linux.
By tweaking existing Linux code, Van de Ven and his team were
able to detect which programs were behaving badly. This revealed
that Linux was performing a lot of small, senseless tasks.

One example was "ondemand", a program designed to save power by
checking the computer's central processing unit (CPU) for
activity and reducing power consumption when activity was low.
The researchers discovered that it was contacting the CPU several
hundred times a second, which was enough to make the CPU more
active than it would have been without ondemand running at all.
"Here we have a piece of software designed to save you power that
is actually wasting power," Van de Ven says. Because Linux is
open-source they were able to rewrite the program so that it
checks CPU activity less often.

The team also found energy-wasters in a version of Linux that runs
on personal computers. These included a program that checks the
email inbox 100 times per second even though the inbox only asks
the server if there is new email every 5 minutes; a clock that
updates every second even though it displays the time in minutes;
and a program that asks the hardware 10 times a second if the
volume of a speaker has changed even though another program is
already set up to tell the hardware when speaker volume changes.
"These sound like little things, but if you have 40 programs that
do this, they add up," says Van de Ven. The team has made its
upgrades available via various open-source software mailing lists
over the last year, and two versions of Linux for laptops have
incorporated them.

Along with Google and the conservation group WWF, Intel is also a
member of the Climate Savers Computing Initiative , a
collaboration Intel helped to found in June 2007. Rather than
focusing on the data centre as a whole, the CSCI is looking at
how to improve the efficiency of individual servers. One strategy
that Google has already implemented on some computers is
eliminating voltage conversions within individual computers.

In the future, CSCI directors imagine having personal computers
that can adjust their energy consumption in proportion to their
workload. Today's computers tend to use the same amount of
energy, no matter what they are doing.

Bill Weihl of Google, who is also co-chair of the CSCI, is
optimistic that its efforts and that of the Green Grid will
reduce the amount of energy data centres and personal computers
use. Whether it is enough to offset the predicted growth in
computer use over the next 20 years "is hard to predict", he says.

sanjay Prasad,
Home Phone 02228122688

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