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The internet is not as green as we imagine

THE INTERNET MAKES a major contribution to reducing global warming, we all know that, don’t we? 

 

As we travel less to attend meetings and instead increasingly work, virtually, on the internet we burn less fuel, take fewer flights and other journeys, reduce the number of physical meetings we have to attend in person, and occupy fewer desk spaces in expensive heated or air conditioned city centre office blocks. 

 

What with advanced online communication tools such as Skype, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Yammer and so on we have found a superb low carbon alternative to all those actual meetings; we can work in ‘virtual space’ and save the planet. 

 

Or so I thought until I heard David Miller speak at a recent meeting arranged by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Miller is the Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley.

 

Miller posed a question to the audience: “How many Google searches would you need to do to use up the same energy as boiling a kettle for a cup of coffee?”. The audience guessed between 50,000 to 120,000 searches – surely it must be a tiny amount of power that is required for such an everyday task. But they couldn’t be more wrong.

 

Google has recently helpfully published their energy usage figures; they calculate that a typical web search, on average, produces around 0.2g of CO2; whereas boiling a kettle produces around 7g of CO2. That means that the real answer to the question of how many Google searches equal the energy required to make a cup of coffee is only around 35.

 

In fact, computer processing uses a great deal of power, both to do the calculations, and to cool the equipment to stop it from overheating. The transmission of data over great distances is not the problem; that is normally over optical fibre cables and uses almost no energy. The energy usage is mostly in the switching of the data to get it to its destination, and the processing of that data when it gets there.

 

The problem largely lies with the way the internet works – it was originally designed to continue to operate in the face of the massive disruption caused by a nuclear war. It breaks all data down into small ‘packets’ and sends each packet independently across the network, sticking them back together again at the far end, recreating the original message. 

 

It’s a bit like sending a letter, but instead of sending it in one envelope, you cut it up into hundreds of pieces and send each piece to different sorting offices. It all gets there in the end but it does use a lot of processing power to sort all these little parcels of information.

 

The internet today is using somewhere between six and nine per cent of all electrical energy, an enormous quantity, and is growing fast, particularly as more people are using the internet to view video, a form of data that was never envisaged when the internet was designed back in the 1960s.

 

In the first three months of this year, Netflix alone streamed 10Bn hours of video, consuming 75 petajoules of energy which would be enough to power over half a million households for a full year. And video streaming is growing at over 60 per cent a year.

 

We are heading for an inevitable crunch unless we can solve this problem. It seems that the internet is not as ‘green’ as we thought.

 

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