The True Cost of Compute
Today, computers are everywhere. We owe a great deal of safety, comfort and convenience to their omnipresence. They are indispensable tools that represent the pinnacle of human technological achievement, but we all make the mistake of thinking that they’re impact free. Trust me, they’re not. There is always a cost.
Rise of the Machines
According to Greenpeace, as of 2012 the IT sector consumed approximately 7% of global electricity - that’s the same amount of electricity as the nation of Russia. The IT sector is responsible for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the entire air traffic industry. When did such a novel industry become so energy hungry?
Let’s take a walk down memory lane. In 2009, Google claimed it consumed about 0.0003 kWh of energy on an average search query, translating to roughly 0.2g of carbon dioxide. Google processed more than 40,000 searches from around the world every second. That's 1.2 billion searches per day, and 1.2 trillion searches per year. That’s 240 million kgs of carbon dioxide, and 360 GWh of electricity every year - something like the national electricity consumption of St Lucia. Not that bad right? Well that was 2009….. Before Facebook became profitable, before IPhones outsold Nokia, before 3G adoption was mainstream and before Netflix became a thing.
10 years on and it’s important to take stock of what has changed. Computers are well and truly integrated into our lives. Smartphones providers are in a technological space race, video streaming is the largest consumer of bandwidth and light bulbs can be controlled with your watch. Long story short, over the last ten years computers have slowly embedded themselves in our lives.
Skynet is Rising
More devices plus more digitization plus faster access plus more data equals more computation and more energy consumption. All elements of the data - computation - networking triangle act as drivers and enablers, resulting in a virtuous circle of exponentially digitizing economy. And this trend will accelerate as the super connectedness of our society fast eliminates the human middleman and we enter the age of Machine to Machine (M2M) communication.
The environmental footprint of our digital infrastructure went from St Lucia to Russia in 10 years. Imagine 10 more. Without sounding apocalyptic, we need a step change in the way we provision our digital infrastructure.
Our devices are merely convenient mediums through which we access the digital world. The heavy lifting is done by data centers - large energy intensive factories of data computation. Out of sight and largely out of mind for the unsuspecting public.
Don’t get me wrong, they’ve done a fantastic job. Efficiency has improved considerably as data centers have consolidated and continue to find ways to reduce costs (including energy costs). Cloud providers have nearly tripled utilization rates. Data centers often source a significant proportion of their energy from green energy sources, and their waste heat is increasingly re-used in district heat grids. But more must be done, and the groundwork must be laid now.
Time for some good news... And no, it’s not Greta Thunberg riding in as a reprogrammed T-2000, sent by the resistance in the year 2035 to safeguard mankind (although that’s strangely believable). It’s called Helio.
At Helio, we are working on the next generation of computing. We believe that only by drastically increasing efficiency and resource utilization can we achieve the ambitious goal of making compute sustainable and affordable. Our platform matches excess computing supply with demand, optimizing prices for consumers, and resource utilization for suppliers. There are no silver bullets to the digital revolution, but Helio gives us a fighting chance.