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Conversations 4: Will the cloud run out of steam?

Dr Kerry HintonAs we move more and more information services into the cloud, we could run into an energy roadblock — not in the data centres themselves, which are becoming increasingly energy-efficient, but in the wireless devices we use for connectivity.

“The energy-efficiency of telecommunications and ICT gets worse the closer you get to the household. The big power-consumption component resides in how you get into the cloud, that is, wireless access,” says Dr Kerry Hinton, a research fellow at the Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) in Melbourne.

We’re talking about millions of customers, and hundreds of thousands of wireless base stations — and in the Third World, many base stations aren’t powered by the electricity grid, because it’s too unreliable, but by diesel generators running 24/7.

“It is an open question as to how we can sustain ongoing exponential growth of internet and information services,” says Hinton on today’s episode of Corrupted Nerds: Conversations.

“The internet consumes about one or two percent of the world’s electricity generation, definitely climbing, and if we don’t produce improvements in energy efficiency for ICT equipment, we’ll be heading up towards about ten percent by about 2025. That’s a big jump, and it really means that the challenge is on to make sure that ICT doesn’t become an energy monster and produces roadblocks to using ICT to improve society.”

This interview was recorded on 9 April 2013 in Sydney, Australia.

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Episode Notes

  1. The Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET), a partnership between the University of Melbourne, Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs and the Victorian State Government.
  2. Greenpeace International’s report How Clean is Your Cloud?, April 2012. In a breathtaking irony, Greenpeace has hosted the report at Issuu — that is, in the dirty cloud — and you can only download it for more energy-efficient offline reading by signing up with this third party.
  3. CEET’s report The Power of Wireless Cloud (PDF), June 2013.
  4. GreenTouch, “a consortium of leading ICT industry, academic and non-governmental research experts dedicated to fundamentally transforming communications and data networks, including the Internet, and significantly reducing the carbon footprint of ICT devices, platforms and networks.” Their goal is to increase network energy efficiency by a factor of 1000 by 2015, compared to 2010 levels.
  5. Alcatel-Lucent’s lightRadio technology.
  6. Bell Labs’ high-bandwidth future, an episode of the Patch Monday podcast from November 2011 featuring an interview with Bell Labs’ chief scientist Alice White.
  7. Moore’s Law, which noted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years.

[Update 6 October 2013: I’ve temporarily turned off comments on this post because it’s being hit hard by Japanese spambots.]

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