Friday, 15 January 2010

The Green Touch Initiative and Network Efficiency

It is with some interest I noticed the Green-Touch ( initiative released by a consortium let by Alcatel-Lucent this week.

Computer networks are increasingly becoming the infrastructure of our society. Current estimates of the carbon footprint of computer networks put it equivalent to 50 million cars or the footprint of every car in the France and Russia combined. As we move processes over to them such as telephony and entertainment, along with near future initiatives like smart energy grids and network enabled appliances, networks are going to need to be larger and therefore more energy intensive. That is without a leap forward in the underlying network technology.

Bell Labs and Shannon's Law

Alcatel-Lucent own Bell Labs, one of the great centers of historical IT innovation. Researchers at Bell Labs have a long list of nobel prize winners amongst them, and are responsible for many revolutionary computer innovations such as Unix and the C Programming language. It was one of their researchers Claude Shannon who was the founder of digital information theory. He also did calculations as to the theoretical limits of the transfer of digital communications.

Using Shannon's work, researchers at Bell Labs have calculated that the theoretical maximum efficiencies of networks could be increased up to 10,000 times from their current capacities. Biting off a chunk of this, Alcatel-Lucent have set a goal of having a model for a network 1,000 times more energy efficient by 2015.

That Alcatel-Lucent have set up a consortium to try to achieve this is an excellent step forward. With the list of supporters including research institutions hoping for innovations and grants, alongside telephony companies hoping for dramatic energy cost reductions and network improvements, there is hope for some traction for the initiative. There is a large absence of other large network vendors from the consortium, such as Cisco etc, the presence of which would give the project a less commercial and marketing feel.

Another question hanging over this initiative is whether it will be about energy efficiency, or about making networks faster and claiming that reduces their carbon footprint. Granted, a network running 1000 times faster is going to be more efficient assuming the underlying traffic and usage doesn't change, however network bandwidth has been improving for some time, and no one has tried to claim that the driver has been energy efficiency. If Alcatel-Lucent are leading a consortium which has nothing in mind rather than further throughput increases, we can quite confidently label this as green wash over business as usual practises.

Cynicism aside, from our reading of the press released by the consortium, it seems they are genuinely going to focus on energy efficiency, which is an idea who's time has come and should be supported.

Areas for network efficiency gains

Technical people will of course be asking, where are the savings going to come from? They are short on detail but brainstorming a little there are some areas of inefficiencies which could pretty immediately be addressed.

The global information superhighway (haven't used that term in ages :) was built to withstand a nuclear attack. This means redundancy, to route to any given point can take many different paths, if a piece of equipment fails you take another way to your destination. Currently all this equipment is on all the time, 24/7, regardless of utilisation rates, so simply turning them off when not being used could result in large energy reductions. We can use the networks themselves and capacities similar to Wake-On-Lan, in order to turn off equipment which isn't in use. Why be powering a network at trivial utilisation that is mainly there for redundancy, when it can be powered on when it is needed? We see energy efficiencies gains of over 40% implementing stand-by on other computing infrastructure and there seems no reason putting this logic into existing networks wouldn't see similar gains.

Wireless technology

Work was done in this area by the University of Rochester with specific application to the military. If people are carrying the equipment and batteries, suddenly energy efficiency becomes a major issue. That is a theme underlying much of this, that energy efficiency just hasn't been on the radar until now, but with the era of cheap energy and consequence-less over-usage falling behind us increasingly efficiency will be on the agenda.

Most wireless hubs are consuming power 24/7 like the rest of their network counterparts, polling the empty space constantly to see if anyone wants to connect, most of them don't even have an obvious on/off switch. You can go and turn down the polling now on your wireless hub to something sensible like every 1.5 seconds and reduce it's energy use, but the manufacturers can do more. Being able to remotely power up/down your home wireless hub/router from a pc would be a good start using existing technology and saving consumers money. Further on a smart house/business which has a concept of whether it is occupied or not could turn off all wireless equipment when not in use.

The current way we broadcast wireless is also inefficient by its very nature. You may be sitting three meters from your hub, yet it is broadcasting to every home in the vicinity. As well it broadcasts in all directions simultaneously, regardless of whether this is needed. If it is possible, a system which had an understanding of where you were in a house could reduce transmition, or produce a targeted signal, both of which could improve performance, security and reduce energy usage.

So there are simple ways energy reduction is achievable now using existing technology, and I'm sure there are many others that we don't have to wait for 2015 to implement. That's not what the Green Touch consortium are promising us however, they are promising a revolutionary new network infrastructure, backwards compatible and with an energy efficiency of 1000 times more than anything we've seen before. We'll just have to wait and see what the geniuses at Bell Labs come up with.


I'm not sure what motivated this sudden consortium Alcatel-Lucent have put together, maybe an executive watched "The 11th Hour" and got inspired or his kids asked uncomfortable questions about a warming world. Whatever the motivation (and I don't think it's any coincidence it comes hot on the heels of Copenhagen) I'm glad this is on the agenda. IT needs to play it's part in the sustainable, low carbon world, and networks are an integral part of that.

I look forward to seeing what the Green Touch initiative comes up with, I hope it is a genuinely industry wide sharing of energy efficiency knowledge, as we will all benefit from this, particularly the residents of low lying island nations.

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