07 May, 2009

Internet’s energy appetite a threat


Bobbie Johnson

SAN FRANCISCO — The Internet's increasing appetite for electricity poses a major threat to companies such as Google, according to scientists and industry executives.

Leading figures have told The Guardian that many Internet companies are struggling to manage the costs of delivering billions of web pages, videos and files online — in a "perfect storm" that could even threaten the future of the Internet itself.

"In an energy-constrained world, we cannot continue to grow the footprint of the Internet ... we need to rein in the energy consumption," said Mr Subodh Bapat, vice-president at Sun Microsystems, one of the world's largest manufacturers of web servers.

Mr Bapat said the network of web servers and data centres that store online information is becoming more expensive, while profits come under pressure as a result of the recession.

"We need more data centres, 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."

With more than 1.5 billion people online around the world, scientists estimate that the energy footprint of the Internet is growing by more than 10 per cent each year. This leaves many Internet firms caught in a bind: Energy costs are escalating because of their growing popularity, while their advertising revenues come under pressure from the recession.

One site under particular scrutiny is YouTube — now the world's third-biggest website, but one that requires a heavy subsidy from Google, its owner. A recent analysis by Credit Suisse suggested it could lose as much as £317 million ($698 million) this year, as it succumbs to the high cost of delivering power-intensive videos over the Web.

And while the demand for electricity is a primary concern, a secondary result of the explosion of Internet use is that the computer industry's carbon debt is increasing drastically.

However, tracking the growth of the Web's energy use is difficult, since internal company estimates of power consumption are rarely made public.

One study by energy analyst Rich Brown, commissioned by the United States environmental protection agency, suggested that US data centres used 61 billion kilowatt hours of energy in 2006. That is enough to supply the whole of the United Kingdom for two months.

Mr Brown said that despite efforts to achieve greater efficiency, Internet use is growing at such a rate that it is outstripping technical improvements — meaning that American data centres could account for as much as 80 billion kWh this year.

Among the problems that could result from the Internet's voracious hunger for electricity are website failures and communications disruption costing millions in lost business every hour — as well as power cuts and brownouts at plants which supply data centres with electricity.

To combat this, initiatives are taking place across the industry to cope with the problem, including new designs for data centres, innovative cooling methods and more investment in renewable energy.

Google was among the first Internet firms to take action to reduce its footprint by developing its own data centres — but even though it pumped nearly US$2.3 billion ($3.4 billion) into projects last year, its vice-president of operations Urs Hölzle said the firm was struggling to contain 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. THE GUARDIAN

From TODAY, World – Tuesday, 05-May-2009

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