It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, November 5, 2007

Green Mainframes: Big is Beautiful

Via Slashdot, where there follows some interesting discussion about cap-and-trade, IBM is going to offer carbon credits for moving from no-longer-especially-personal PCs (which really are not typically in the user's full control even in a home setting anymore) back to mainframes which have economies of scale in energy consumption.

If high speed home internet bandwidth weren't being gobbled up by rather ill-designed and accidental video-on-demand system, the time for thin clients at home would already have arrived. iPhones... OK, maybe that's off topic for this blog.. Never mind...

The interesting thing for us here is the emergence of private sector carbon credits. Not only are we reverting to mainframes, we are reverting to private mints as well! Essentially IBM is offering you a private endorsement which can be traded for value and openly exchanged.

As far as carbon goes, this is certainly more silver buckshot than silver bullet, but if it works, more power (er, more conservation...) to IBM and Google too.

There is a Big is Beautiful theme here that I'd like to ponder some more.

6 comments:

John Mashey said...

Also in that article:
"IBM isn't alone in providing a financial incentive for energy efficiency. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., for instance, is working with major utilities to expand a program that pays a company between $150 and $300 per server removed from service. The utility has been encouraging its customers to adopt virtualization to increase server utilization."

This is yet another "wheel of reincarnation" thing in computing:
mainframes -> distributed -> server consolidation (whether called mainframes or something else). There have been a lot of data centers with tons of servers with very low duty cycles, but chewing up power.

1) We had a whole session at Hot Chips conference in August on Power from chips to data center,as everyone knows this is a serious issue.

2) The PG&E initiative was highlighted recently by Diane Greene (CEO of VMware, which makes virtualization software), noting that PG&E found it saved more electricity than some of their other programs.

PGE, www.pge.com, operates under California PUC rules that reward utilities for *effiency* rather than just generating more electricity.

mz said...

Server costs are nowadays in big part formed by energy costs (electricity, cooling). Google still uses cheap pc:s I think so even this page is served from one.

Web pages are not immaterial services in the sense that they actually use a lot of resources and need a lot of infrastructure.

So when people browse the web and come to In It For The Gold, there is always some resource use going on. In the past it would have been a column in some journal or magazine perhaps.

Most of web traffic is just crud. If you look at the source of this page for example, the actual text content is in the minority. And never mind all the decorative pictures etc... computers need to advance every year, even if the content mostly doesn't evolve much, the delivery methods just get computationally less and less efficient.

There are still newsgroups that have worked for decades without much changes and they do it with very little resources.

I think, if google introduced an option in blogger to make a lightweight page (no pictures except the essential, simple data types so not much computation is needed to generate and layout the page). Environmentally minded people with oft-visited blogs could move to those and a lot of electricity would be saved.

Michael Tobis said...

mz, I doubt that the energy cost for serving a page is dominated by the byte count of the page.

Lots of interesting questions. Does an idle packet switch consume less energy than a busy one? DOes an idle browser consume less energy than a busy one? Is the cost dominated by the DBMS or the presentation layer or the internet protocol or the forwarding or the rendering? By the client, the netwrok, or the server? How to amortize infrastructure across messages? I have seen arguments for using dark backgrounds that seem more plausible to me.

However, another theme worth taking up is how much trouble to go to for symbolic rather than substantive improvements.

For instance I believe Hollywood types with sprawling air conditioned mansions have their staff unplug their microwaves between uses because of the standby power. I have a lot of doubt that this matters anywhere near as much as other impacts of their lifestyle.

I suspect the issue you raise is similar. I am willing to be convinced otherwise, though, if you have some quantitative arguments.

mz said...

If content was served in a lightweight form, people wouldn't need to constantly buy new computers just to browse the web. But power supply units just keep on doubling in size, soon they will use a kilowatt. They grow slower than the computer speed, but they grow nevertheless.

Idle processors for sure do use less electricity than number crunching ones.

I've heard comparisons that a Second Life virtual world character uses as much electricity as the average Brazilian. The client computer, the server, and the network in between all have their share.
(Never checked that closely, but a "Brazilian" uses 250 W if divided to a constant power, from nationmaster.com, so it's possible.)

I've heard of Google being already a significant player in California's electricity consumption.

Internet and all these communications were supposed to bring us the good and nice lean immaterial society, and that could have been the case with usenet and email at one point (now they are almost destroyed by spam and cranks) but the majority of www is just getting more resource hogging and bloated all the time.

The solution isn't some more efficient server technology but I believe mainly some more efficient content distribution paradigm. Something RSS like could be one answer. The mainframe servers can help, of course, no doubt, but they can't if the measure of inefficient and needlessly complex software is used against them.

I've been quite disillusioned with the progress of computers - the newest software soon always brings the newest computers to halt. I've heard you can type with the latest Microsoft Word so fast that it can't keep up - a problem that should not have existed since twenty years.

So expect to hear from green software some time in the future. It has a possibility.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, mz, you won't find me defending MS Word. Don't get me started, even if it is arguably on topic.

I'm unconvinced by your virtual character costing as much as a Brazilian. Somebody saying something is so doens;'t make it so, especially these days.

Mention nuclear on Gristmill and a character will reliably show up claiming that solar is cheaper than coal already, which is most unfortunately not so. For instance.

Perhaps our intuitions differ on the energetics of a web page. Presumably one of us is more wrong than the other.

I too would like to see a sane, lightweight OS on a useful, low powered computer. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction.

I'm not in favor of reducing the design features of this blog, though. You'll have to do a lot of convincing to change my mind on that. I think effective communication is too important to leave the design turf to the bad guys who couldn't care less about their impact on the commons.

David B. Benson said...

I've just seen a linux machine which fits in your shirt pocket comfortably. It has a decent screen (LED?) and workable keyboard. Has 128 megs with the possiblity of plugging in 2 gigs. (no disk)

Runs on a little battery for about 10 days if you aren't using it much. Perfectly adequate for web browsing and e-mailing.

$299 w/o the 2 gig plug-in.