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Researchers Warn Of Internet’s Carbon Footprint

May 5, 2009

According to scientists, the internet’s appetite for electricity poses a threat to companies like Google.

“In an energy-constrained world, we cannot continue to grow the footprint of the internet…we need to rein in the energy consumption,” said Subodh Bapat, vice-president at Sun Microsystems.

Bapat told the Guardian that the network of web servers and data centers storing online information are becoming more expensive.  At the same time, profits are dwindling due to the recession.

“We need more data centers, we need more servers. Each server burns more watts than the previous generation and each watt costs more,” he said. “If you compound all of these trends, you have the perfect storm.”

Researchers estimate that the energy footprint of the Internet is increasing by more than 10% annually.

Many internet companies are seeing energy costs escalate due to increasing popularity, while at the same time watching their advertising revenues decrease from the recession.

Google’s YouTube, now the world’s third-largest website, has come under particular scrutiny. 

Although the site is large, analysis by Credit Suisse suggests that it could lose as much as $470 million this year, as it succumbs to the high price of delivering video over the web.

A secondary concern is the computer industry’s carbon debt.  The industry is now jumping other sectors, like the airline industry, with its negative environmental impact.

Tracking the internet’s energy use proves difficult, because power consumption is rarely made public by companies.

“A lot of this internet stuff is fairly secretive,” says Rich Brown, an energy analyst at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California.

“Google is probably the best example: they see it as a trade secret: how many data centers they have, how big they are, how many servers they have.”

According to a study conducted by Brown, and commissioned by the US environmental protection agency, US data centers used 61 billion kilowatt hours in 2006, which is 1.5% of the entire electricity usage in the US.

Internet use is growing at a faster rate than technical improvements to decrease electricity use, said Brown.

“Efficiency is being more than overwhelmed by continued growth and demand for new services,” he added. “It’s a common story…technical improvements are often taken back by increased demand.”

The internet’s hunger for electricity could potentially cause website failures costing millions in lost business, as well as power cuts at plants supplying electricity to data centers.

Initiatives are already taking place across the industry to deal with the issue.

In Cambridge, researchers at a Microsoft research lab are replacing new machines with less powerful, but more efficient laptops.

“It turns out that those processors have been designed to be very energy efficient, basically to make batteries last,” said Andrew Herbert, the director of Microsoft Research Cambridge.

“We found we can build more energy-efficient data centers with those than with the kind of high performance processors you find in a typical server.”

Google was one of the first companies to deal with its carbon footprint.  Last year, the company invested $2.3 billion into infrastructure projects.  It remains unclear as to whether Google is winning its energy battle.

Urs Hölzle, Google’s vice-president of operations, told the Guardian that it was having a difficult time containing energy costs.

“You have exponential growth in demand from users, and many of these services are free so you don’t have exponential growth of revenue to go with it,” he said.

“With good engineering we’re trying to make those two even out “¦ but the power bill is going up.”

Hölzle believes the environmental impact of using the internet has been exaggerated.

Some researchers still believe the internet’s energy footprint could quickly run out of control.

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