The Net effect

Alistair Fairweather

The internet is causing global warming!

It sounds like one of those crackpot headlines from a supermarket tabloid, alongside "Aliens stole my geraniums!" and "I can hear colours!" but in this case it has more than a ring of truth.

Analysts reckon that the internet now accounts for more than 1% of the planet's electricity usage and that if it carries on growing the way it has, it will be responsible for more carbon emissions than the airline industry by the end of the next decade.

The problem is servers - the powerful computers that crunch the trillions of numbers that are the internet. The page you're reading right now is "served" to you from just such a computer or, to be more precise, computers.

Functions like data storage, statistics collection, advertising and pure number crunching are all divided between separate servers - with backup machines in case the primary one fails.

And that's the problem - every half-successful website out there requires at least one of these energy hogs dedicated to them, and the biggest (like Google and Amazon) require thousands of them.


Sharing sounds like a great idea, but isn't practical during peak times when they need all the grunt they can get. The rest of the time though, they just sit there idling, chewing electricity at three in the morning while insomniacs read their star signs.

It's very like the problem with commuting to work. Everyone knows they should take the bus and save the planet, or at least share lifts, but taking your own car is so much more convenient. And so, there we all sit, locked in traffic and burning precious petrol.

Luckily for servers there's a way to take the bus and still get home just when they want. It's called "virtualisation" and it allows the functions of servers to be carried out by software. This means that instead of thousands of medium sized servers, you can have a couple of dozen enormous ones, which can "pretend", via software, to be thousands of separate machines.

So how does this help? Surely these mega-servers just end of using the same amount of power? During peak times, yes, but it's during slow periods that virtualisation comes into its own. If, say, ten mega-servers are all running at 1% at 03:00, they're clever enough to shoo their little flock of virtual servers onto one of their cousins and then go to sleep - thus saving 80 or 90% on electricity.

Normal servers, suffice it to say, can't do this. They need to be physically switched off and lugged around, which just isn't a practical given how little electricity you actually save for all those extra man-hours.

Back to basics

Server virtualisation is hardly a new idea though - it's been kicking around in one form or another since the 1960s when commercial computing began. At heart it's not that different from the old concept of mainframes that made IBM one of the biggest companies on the planet. But the rise of personal computing confined the practice to obscurity for more than two decades.

Since the turn of the century though, it's become big business again. Just ask VMware, the market leader in server virtualisation technology. They earned nearly a half a billion dollars last year - 80% more than the year before.

Still, even with their revenues projected to double next year, that's still small beer in the grand scheme of things. But when Microsoft launches a copy of your services after failing to buy you out, you know you're on to something.

And virtualisation is about a lot more than just saving electricity. By making all the complexities and capital expenditure headaches associated with servers someone else's problem, businesses are free to concentrate on what they're good at - pleasing customers and innovating.

The current environment is a bit like the early days of electricity generation or telephones when every big company or city wanted their own generator or exchange. In the end people realised that we should leave the hard work to those who do it best, and cheapest. We can only hope that VMware, or whoever overtakes them, will treat our electronic destiny with the respect it deserves.

  • Alistair Fairweather is's Social Networking Product Manager.

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