How your shower could participate in a DDOS attack

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by a Kickstarter campaign for a gizmo called a SWON, described as “a connected conservation device for your shower”. You unscrew the shower head, screw on the SWON and then screw the head back on to it. From then on, water goes through the SWON before it reaches you. The Kickstarter campaign needs $50,000 to be pledged before the product can be made. Last time I checked, it had 75 backers and had raised pledges of $4,798.

Before consigning it to the “leading-edge uselessness” bin, I clicked on the link…

Read on

Batteries not excluded

This morning’s Observer column:

Many years ago, in 1999 to be exact, Andy Grove, who was then chairman of the giant chip-maker Intel, famously predicted: “Companies that are not internet companies in five years’ time won’t be companies at all.” He was widely ridiculed for this assertion, mostly because his critics didn’t understand what he was getting at. All he was saying was that the internet, which in 1999 was still regarded by much of the world as exotic, would one day be regarded as a utility, like mains electricity.

Grove was right. What he omitted to say, however, was that the net would never be as important as electricity. This fact appears to have escaped the notice of some folks in the computing business; it certainly escapes many of those who breathlessly report its doings. But it’s obvious the moment you think about it. If we had to choose between the internet or access to electrical power, which one would we go for? No contest.

What we have come to accept as civilised life depends utterly on secure supplies of electricity. We would miss the net, of course, and large chunks of our technical infrastructure depend on its continuance, but we could get by without it. Take away electricity, however, and our modern machine, including the net, stops…

Read on

Greener cloud computing? I wonder

Energy consumption from data centers doubled between 2000 and 2005–from 0.5 percent to 1 percent of world total electricity consumption. That figure, which currently stands at around 1.5 percent, is expected to rise further. According to a study published in 2008 by the Uptime Institute, a datacenter consultancy based in Santa Fe, NM, it could quadruple by 2020.

“Having energy consumption go from one to three percent in five to ten years, if that goes on, we are in big trouble,” says Kenneth Brill, Uptime Institute executive director. Unless this growth is checked, greenhouse gas emissions will rise, and “the profitability of corporations will deteriorate dramatically,” he adds.

Hmmm… Not sure about the profitability angle, but the environmental issue is a real one. According to this report, Yahoo is now taking it seriously.

At any rate, its new datacentre near Buffalo, NY, includes buildings oriented to take advantage of the breeze coming off Lake Erie, with cupolas to vent hot air from racks of servers. Operators only have to switch on air-conditioning when outside temperature rises above 27 degrees.

Down on the server farm

Interesting piece in this week’s Economist about the environmental impact of cloud computing.

Internet firms, meanwhile, need ever larger amounts of computing power. Google is said to operate a global network of about three dozen data centres with, according to some estimates, more than 1m servers. To catch up, Microsoft is investing billions of dollars and adding up to 20,000 servers a month.

As servers become more numerous, powerful and densely packed, more energy is needed to keep the data centres at room temperature. Often just as much power is needed for cooling as for computing. The largest data centres now rival aluminium smelters in the energy they consume. Microsoft’s $500m new facility near Chicago, for instance, will need three electrical substations with a total capacity of 198 megawatts. As a result, finding a site for a large data centre is now, above all, about securing a cheap and reliable source of power, says Rich Miller of Data Center Knowledge, a website that chronicles the boom in data-centre construction.

The availability of cheap power is mainly why there are so many data centres in Quincy. It is close to the Columbia River, with dams that produce plenty of cheap hydroelectric power. There is water for cooling, fast fibre-optic links, and the remoteness provides security. For similar reasons, Google chose to build a new data centre at The Dalles, a hamlet across the Columbia River in the state of Oregon.

Such sites are in short supply in America, however. And with demand for computing picking up in other parts of the world, the boom in data-centre construction is spreading to unexpected places. Microsoft is looking for a site in Siberia where its data can chill. Iceland has begun to market itself as a prime location for data centres, again for the cool climate, but also because of its abundant geothermal energy. Hitachi Data Systems and Data Islandia, a local company, are planning to build a huge data-storage facility (pictured at top of article). It will be underground, for security and to protect the natural landscape…

Data smelting

Slight Economist article on the energy demands of cloud computing…

AS ONE industry falls, another rises. The banks of the Columbia River in Oregon used to be lined with aluminium smelters. Now they are starting to house what might, for want of a better phrase, be called data smelters. The largest has been installed by Google in a city called The Dalles. Microsoft and Yahoo! are not far behind. Google’s plant consumes as much power as a town of 200,000 people. And that is why it is there in the first place. The cheap hydroelectricity provided by the Columbia River, which once split apart aluminium oxide in order to supply the world with soft-drinks cans and milk-bottle tops, is now being used to shuffle and store masses of information. Computing is an energy-intensive industry. And the world’s biggest internet companies are huge energy consumers—so big that they are contemplating some serious re-engineering in order to curb their demand…

Strangely, it makes no mention of virtualisation.

Second Life: First World energy consumption

Nick Carr has a post in which he uses some data supplied by Linden Labs (proprietors of Second Life) to show that an avatar in that benighted corner of cyberspace consumes as much electricity as the average Brazilian.

If there are on average between 10,000 and 15,000 avatars “living” in Second Life at any point, that means the world has a population of about 12,500. Supporting those 12,500 avatars requires 4,000 servers as well as the 12,500 PCs the avatars’ physical alter egos are using. Conservatively, a PC consumes 120 watts and a server consumes 200 watts. Throw in another 50 watts per server for data-center air conditioning. So, on a daily basis, overall Second Life power consumption equals:

(4,000 x 250 x 24) (12,500 x 120 x 24) = 60,000,000 watt-hours or 60,000 kilowatt-hours

Per capita, that’s:

60,000 / 12,500 = 4.8 kWh

Which, annualized, gives us 1,752 kWh. So an avatar consumes 1,752 kWh per year. By comparison, the average human, on a worldwide basis, consumes 2,436 kWh per year. So there you have it: an avatar consumes a bit less energy than a real person, though they’re in the same ballpark.

I have some good friends who are dedicated environmental campaigners, but who are also evangelical about the potential of Second Life. I wonder what they think about the energy issue.

And, just to be fair, everything that applies to Second Life’s energy consumption applies to cloud computing generally.