Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thoughts about the environmental impact of the Internet infrastructure, and green web hosting

It must seem magical.. this little box, a keyboard, a screen, a mouse, and it's a portal to all the worlds knowledge. It must seem so magical but perhaps I'm so accustomed to it after 25 years living on the Internet that I've forgotten that magic. Lately though I've been thinking about some of the unseen impact of the Internet. I've come to think that the teensy little box and the relatively small power use it takes creates an illusion that the Internet is "green", that it's "greener" to conduct commerce and other communication via the Internet than are other ways to communicate, Most of the cost and energy required to run the Internet is not at your home, it's not visible to most people and unless you've had the opportunity to walk around a datacenter you may not have an appreciation of the equipment required to run the Internet.

As a blogger writing about green technology this equation is important to me: Green businesses need green infrastructure and need green web hosting. The purpose I have for writing about sustainable green technology is to increase understanding of the issues, so we all can live in the garden paradise of our dreams. It's getting clearer to me every day that my business conduct as a blogger has to first come from my values. My values say to address every single last part of my life and business with sensible green sustainable solutions. Hence my web hosting needs to be green web hosting.

I've been doing some research regarding the greening of the web infrastructure and am heartened that others are doing some interesting research. There seems to be a growing number of green web hosting providers as each time I look for them I find more.

But let's get back to this disconnect between perception and reality.

The general principle I perceive is that understanding the impact of ones actions makes it easier for see the need to change ones actions. Like the research into the connection between cancer and smoking that makes clearer the need to stop smoking. Having more knowledge however is only the first step, there is still the need to take steps to change.

Let's take a little stroll through typical Internet infrastructure equipment. There is a lot more to running the Internet than your desktop computer. There is a communications infrastructure akin to the telephone system, and there is a lot of overlap between the telephone system and the Internet. In some cases telephone system traffic is carried over the Internet. In any case this communication infrastructure uses massive quantities of cables, either copper wires or fiber optic cables, strung along telephone poles and underground conduit and microwave relay stations. The focal points of the communications infrastructures are switching stations, some of which are scattered around each city, some of which are regional. These switching stations are generally owned by the local telephone company, and a little hunting around your city will turn up nondescript windowless buildings emblazoned with the name of your telephone company or other telecommunications companies. Each of these switching stations are stuffed full of electrical equipment, both general purpose and specialized computers, whose purpose is connecting data and voice circuits as Internet and voice traffic goes over the wires.

Stop and ponder for a moment if you will, all the people in your city, all the telephones and computers in your city, the frequency each of them are being used, hence the amount of activity that goes through these switching stations.

The communications infrastructure is only the first part of the journey. The communication infrastructure only communicates your data across the Internet, it does not provide the services you use on the Internet. The services are run by other specialized computers which are programmed to provide all the web pages and web services you're using.

A large web service like google.com could require a hundred thousand or more specialized web server computers.

Stop and ponder for a moment.. how many of the web sites you visit are large web services. Your bank, your favorite online e-commerce site, the news sites, etc etc... how many millions of computers are involved with running the sites you visit regularly?

A month or so ago some study was released trying to analyze the carbon footprint of a search on a service like google.com. It's a bit difficult to quantify but perhaps with what I just said it might give you an appreciation of the cost.

Another study came out recently trying to quantify the carbon footprint of SPAM. As the operator of an Internet server I'm seeing SPAM from a different angle than most. I see in the activity log a continuing stream of attempts to send SPAM into my server, at the least 3-4 of them per minute all day long every day of the year. The more traffic that exists on the Internet the more Internet infrastructure is required to handle that traffic. Hence the more SPAM that's sent over the Internet, the more infrastructure is required to handle that SPAM. It seems totally screwball that such useless traffic is being sent over the Internet, and there is a tremendous environmental cost associated with that useless traffic.

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