on May 28th, 2008

Dear colleagues

1.We welcomed a sizeable group of people to our complimentary, inaugural mini forums last week. During the session they interacted live (see and talk), with each other and the presenter, using our recently developed iQuokka e-learning software package. We had some excellent discussions and as a result would love to expand on this. The mini forums involve short presentations (20 to 25 mins) with some great discussions at the end, at no cost to participants (apart from the time commitment).

2. I noticed with some fascination the latest buzzword emerging from the computer world and one which is certainly impacting on our engineering lives; ‘Cloud Computing’. The idea is that computing is increasingly being supplied as a service over the Internet due to higher broadband speeds and more reliable software. And the irritation with constantly have to upgrade one's computer can be minimised. All one does; is run the programs we normally use on our own computers, on a more powerful central server located somewhere "in the cloud". Using this cloud computing also makes us feel, naturally, that our impact on the climate is reduced. Sadly (inevitably?), the opposite is happening. These data centres are growing rapidly and contain thousands of server computers with some facilities stretching to well over the length of an aircraft carrier or two. And unfortunately they greedily devour and belch out energy (accounting for an unbelievable 1.5% consumption of electricity in the US today). Within 12 years, their carbon footprint will be larger than for aviation. Frighteningly, this has happened in just a few short years. Ominously, the consultancy group, McKinsey, reckon that a third of the servers are running on empty or idle. Absolutely wasted energy as the administrators have lost track of what program runs on which computer ("let’s pull the plug on a computer and see which client shouts loudest" is not just said in jest, but is a real indication of what goes on in these data centres - and you thought your dirty industrial plant was a problem!).

Oddly enough, computer makers seem to be keen to draw attention to the scale of the problem. Fortunately they are now talking about performance per watt in recognition of the need to measure and reduce energy consumption. The EPA feels that employing the latest technologies could reduce power consumption by half. And some new advanced technologies are being designed to minimise this impact.

A few suggestions:

- Get figures of efficiency and find out what the carbon impact is when using a computer or cloud computing.
- Actively look for ways of saving power to your computer systems (even the ones in the cloud) - cutting your bill saves the planet and your wallet

Interestingly enough, William A. Smith, born in 1908, remarked on engineering well before the climate problems became known so many years ago:

‘Engineering is the science of economy, of conserving the energy, kinetic and potential, provided and stored up by nature for the use of man. It is the business of engineering to utilize this energy to the best advantage, so that there may be the least possible waste.’

Yours in engineering learning



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