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Is the Internet Sustainable When Everyone On Earth Uses Over 3 Gigabytes of Data Per Day?

Though we tend not to mention it in the same breath as transportation, heating our homes, or lighting our offices, downloading data consumes energy too. As more people turn to the internet for increasingly data-intensive activities, computer scientists from the U.K.'s Bristol University decided to crunch the numbers and project the ultimate impact on the environment. The results are staggering.

The researchers assumed that people in the developed world would maintain the same level of media consumption, but move it entirely to the cloud, and that the global middle glass would reach a similar level of data use. With those assumption in place, the researchers reckon that each person will demand, on average, over 3 gigabytes of data per day. That'll come to 2,570 exabytes per year for the global population, by 2030. (An exabyte is a billion gigabytes.) The average power needed to sustain such activity would be 1,175 gigawatts. It takes an entire large coal-fired power plant to produce just one gigawatt of energy, so imagine 1,175 of those churning out power just to fuel the world's data hunger.

Big numbers—as any global figures are—and they've led researchers Chris Preist and Paul Shabajee, who present their findings today at the IEEE CloudCom 2010, to propose innovative strategies for containing consumption. Intriguingly, Preist and Shabajee talk about cloud computing in terms more familiar to recycling programs: they want us to change our behavior to reduce "digital waste." Taking a page from behavioral economics and the authors of the popular book Nudge, they advocate "persuasive" web design that nudges users into choosing less data-intensive options—avoiding that high-res photo when a medium-res would suffice.

"One of the main messages of my paper is that the main solution for this is to continue to make servers more powerful and more efficient," Preist tells Fast Company, adding that it's important for those in "green IT" to continue making efficiency improvements. "The impressive efficiency gains that have been achieved so far have been overshadowed by increased demand for broadband services."

Most reports that look into the future of any sort of consumption have apocalyptic overtones. But Preist, in the end, is relatively optimistic. As he said recently in a release: "This research suggests that in a future which is increasingly environmentally constrained, there is still a good chance that broadband connectivity can be provided equitably to the majority of the world." Not so of other realms, he points out: "This contrasts significantly with other aspects of western lifestyle, such as aviation, which could become increasingly the preserve of the wealthy."

The usual caveats of scientific research apply: namely, more is needed. Though the academics tried to take all the variables into account—foreseeing an era when high-def online video is the norm, for instance—further investigation is needed into the role that mobile devices play in network energy use, and in the emissions caused by manufacturing the technology that enables us to access the Web in the first place.

[Image: Flickr user batintherain]

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  • Dermot Murray

    Did the researchers also take into account the substitution effect from dematerialization that these high-bandwidth services provide? In other words, did they factor in the energy saved from not having to produce the CDs, DVDs, printed books/magazines and travel that are replaced by such high-bandwidth services as digitial music/gaming, video-on-demand, web/video-conferencing, etc. That would make for a more holistic picture.

  • George Bush

    Though they probably forgot that hardware gets more energy-efficient all the time, that such thing as data compression exists, that you could think of smart caching techniques for things a lot of people will lookup (like the weather), and that power plants get cleaner and better all the time too.

    Still it will be a challenge, but not as hugely as some "researchers" are trying to make us believe.

  • watzlav

    It should be mentioned that the web is currently getting increasingly green, because most of the providers switch to greener energy sources such as wind, solar and water, at least that is happening here in europe. Considering this a growing web will strengthen the energy revolution by supporting renewable energy. Another big thing – I believe – is: The growth is assumed on the current population, at least that is what i read, not on the estimated population. This is a problem! A very big problem! And it ignores another fact: the 3rd world is going to be online in 2030.
    That said, here are some approaches already being implemented: Fiber-optics. This technology speeds things up close to light speed and with the new Intel technology that was revealed a few days ago it will be possible to have four separate fiber-optic connections through only one single fiber! This technology uses colors to differentiate between the four connections (find more online). Increasingly efficient wireless solutions are promising to conserve gigawatts of energy globally.
    In a nutshell: The energy consumption of the Internet could decrease rapidly, relatively to it's size. So the energy consumption wont increase that horribly, it will be more likely that the end users power requirements are going to be troubling.