Episode 102      19 min 38 sec
Greening the Internet

Prof Rod Tucker spells out the environmental impact of an increasingly networked world, and how energy savings can be found with smarter technology. With science host Dr Shane Huntington.

"There is a potential, if we don't do anything, the internet could use 60 per cent of the world's electricity which is clearly unsustainable." -- Professor Rod Tucker




           



Rod Tucker
Rod Tucker

Rod Tucker is a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He is Director of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES) and Director of the Centre for Ultra-Broadband Information Networks (CUBIN), in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

Professor Tucker has held positions at the University of Queensland, the University of California, Berkeley, Cornell University, Plessey Research, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Hewlett Packard Laboratories and Agilent Technologies.

He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and a Fellow of the IEEE. He received the BE and PhD degrees from the University of Melbourne, in 1969 and 1975, respectively. In 1997 he was awarded the Australia Prize for his contributions to telecommunications.

Credits

Host: Dr Shane Huntington
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Associate Producer: Dr Christine Bailey
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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Greening the Internet

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close; the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

SHANE HUNTINGTON
I’m Shane Huntington.  Thanks for joining us.
The exponential growth of the internet and our usage of communication networks are resulting in a troubling increase in energy consumption.  It is predicted that in 10 years time the energy consumed by the information technology industry will be about 100 times greater than what it is now, which means a commensurate increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
In response, telecommunications research experts launched in 2010 the Green Touch Initiative, with the aim to drastically reduce the industry's energy consumption to a fraction of what is used today.
Professor Rod Tucker, Director of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society at the University of Melbourne, is one of the founding members of the Green Touch Initiative and is directly involved in the important research that is taking place.
Professor Tucker joins us on Up Close to tell us more about how we might green the internet in the future.  Welcome to Up Close, Rod.

ROD TUCKER:
Thank you.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
I'd like to start where I guess most people interact with the system and that is in their homes.  If we were to sit there on our home computer, or our phone, and send a signal how is the connection made at that point?  What actually happens?

ROD TUCKER:
Well the internet is actually a very complicated structure.  It's often claimed that it's the most complex engineering structure built by humankind.
Most of it is not seen by the ordinary person in the street, you see your home internet connection and that's about it, but there is a lot of equipment out there in the network that brings everything together.
So when you send an email from your home it goes via your computer to your modem and these days most people use ADSL which uses the copper pairs, the copper cables from the home to the telephone exchange, and in the telephone exchange there is switching equipment which then directs that email to switching equipment in major centres like the centre of the city, maybe Melbourne, and then directs that via optical fibre cable to another switching centre somewhere else.  If your email is going to Sydney it will send it to Sydney or if it is going to somewhere in the US it probably goes via an undersea cable to a switching centre at a gateway into the US, maybe Los Angeles or something like that.
Then it will switch through a number of switching centres throughout the US, again with optical fibre between them, again back to some local telephone exchange and then via the copper pair out to the home where the email was directed to; maybe your friend in California or something like that.
Each one of those pieces of switching equipment and each one of those optical fibre transmission systems uses energy and the further you transmit your email and the longer the email the more energy you use.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
When you talk about the system there seems to be a hybrid, at the moment, between fibre optic technology and the older cabling, you know copper cabling, why is that still the case?  I mean we've sort of made a massive transition to fibre optics over the last sort of 30 years, but there is still a lot of normal cabling, or older cabling, in place.

ROD TUCKER:
Yes.  The growth of the internet and the huge amounts of data that are now being transferred across the world over the internet has meant that it's been absolutely essential for the Telco's to connect the various switching centres together via optical fibre, because optical fibre is the only technology that can handle that.
In the past the connections between the switching centres for the then old telephone system were typically microwave transmission, using microwave towers or coaxial cables, which were not capable of handling the amount of data that now is required for the internet.  So over the last, as you say, 20 or 30 years all the Telco's have interconnected their main switching offices and their telephone exchanges by optical fibre because nothing else could cope with the amount of data required.
But to connect optical fibre between each telephone exchange and each home would be a very expensive process.  But there are existing copper wires in the ground between every telephone exchange and every home and the technology, to date, has been able to handle the limitations that copper cable and the amount of information going to each home has been not so large that it's been possible to continue using that copper cable.
But, of course, as the capacity of the internet grows and the users demand more and more data at their home, that last piece of copper in the network is starting to run out.  Here in Australia, and elsewhere in the world, there is a move toward replacing that with fibre.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
Why are fibre optics so special in regards to sending large quantities of data?

ROD TUCKER:
Optical fibre has almost unlimited capacity and that's it great strength.  Because it uses light which has a very high frequency and a very wide what we call bandwidth, that is that you can use many colours of light through a single optical fibre, you can put a large amount of information through that fibre.  Whereas copper pairs of wires is limited by a number of effects such as resistance and it's also limited by imperfections in the cable and these are totally overcome by the use of optical fibre.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
When you send a signal through the fibre and the light travels down the fibre and it doesn’t interact with the external environment eventually it gets to the end.  How do you separate all those colours and all those signals at the end of the fibre?

ROD TUCKER:
Well it's really quite simple, conceptually at least.  You can think of a prism the light comes in from a fibre onto an equivalent of a prism and it separates out the colour into a number of individual colours and then each one of those individual colours is picked off and data is taken from that.  So it's really a simple extension of what's been known for many years.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
If the capacity of these fibres is so large, why is it that we have so many of these fibres going from city to city and we don't just have a couple?

ROD TUCKER:
Well the Telco's like to have redundancy in their network.  For a start, each company will have its own extra fibres to provide the ability if some fibres break to use others.  In addition to that it's now a competitive market and there are quite a number of companies each providing competitive long distance transmission, so that there are a number of companies using the equipment as well.
I guess it's once you're digging a hole to put fibres in between capital cities often a lot of extra fibres are put in just for insurance for the future so that you can expand.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
With regards to the comparison between production of fibres and the laying of fibres and copper, is there a significant difference in the energy cost involved and the corresponding carbon emissions of the two technologies?

ROD TUCKER:
There's not a big difference in terms of manufacturer and laying, in fact in both cases there is a fair amount of energy involved in digging holes and civil works does take energy and has an environmental impact.
But in the longer term perhaps the more significant issue is the question of the energy that's used by the equipment, fibre or copper, over many years and there is a difference there.  Basically the fibre transmission uses less energy than transmission over copper, so over a number of years there is less environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gases from fibre than there would be from copper.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
You're listening to Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Our guest today is Professor Rod Tucker and we're speaking about greening the internet.
Rod, let's get to the heart of the problem here which is the impact of the internet and the telecommunication system on our planet and the carbon emissions that cause that impact.  Why is there concern?  Where are we heading?  Where are we at right now?

ROD TUCKER:
Well at the moment the internet and I'm including here in what I call the internet the mobile phone network, the 3G mobile phone network that provides data over the wireless network, and also the data centres that drive the internet; the Google search engines and other data centres that you use when you use the internet.  All those components of the internet use about two per cent of the electricity, the world's electricity at the moment.
Doesn't seem like much two per cent, but you have to take into account the fact that the internet is growing at 50 per cent per annum.  It's an exponential growth, every year the internet is 50 per cent larger in capacity, there is 50 per cent more data than there was the previous year.
If you do a simple exponential calculation that says that over 10 years the internet will grow by a factor of 30, so in 10 years time there will be 30 times as much data as there is today.  Now to carry that data we have to constantly expand the capacity of the internet; we have to put more equipment in, we have to use more wavelengths on the fibre, more colours, we have to use more switching gear in the switching centres.
So if you do a simple calculation and if you assume that the technology is exactly the same in 10 years time as it is now and build an internet that's 30 times as large it will use 60 per cent of the world's electricity, assuming the world's electricity supply doesn't increase much over that time, which we hope it doesn't.  So there is a potential, if we don't do anything, the internet could use 60 per cent of the world's electricity which is clearly unsustainable.
Now we are constantly helped by the semiconductor industry via the fact that every year they come up with better chips that use less energy.  So while the internet is growing at 50 per cent per annum, the equivalent is getting better at about 20 per cent per annum because of the improved technology.
So our future really hangs on the continued improvement of the technology and the problem is that's not really enough.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
When we look at the components that you described earlier that form the network, where are the points of intense energy usage?  Where are the points where we need to look at them and deal with them first?

ROD TUCKER:
That's a very good question and, in fact, that's what the Green Touch consortium is looking at.  In today's technology most of the energy is consumed in the home modem and it might seem like not very much when it's only a small amount of equipment in your home, but when you multiply that by the number of modems in homes and around the world it becomes very large.
Then, next most important, are the switching centres; the telephone exchanges and the large switching centres, that I discussed earlier, that interconnect the telephone exchanges.  Switching centres, they're growing quite rapidly, so with current trends in this about 10 year timeframe the switching centres will take over from the home modem as being the main consumer of energy.
The Telco's, of course, have an advantage here because the customer pays for the power in the home modem, but the Telco's are becoming increasingly concerned about the fact that their operational expenditure is increasing because of their power bills.  The power bills of the Telco's is growing rapidly because of the increased energy consumption and their switching centres, so there is a lot of pressure there to keep that in check.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
Now Rod your project of greening the internet is just initiating in - you know earlier this year in 2010, part of it is about bringing to bear thermodynamics and some of the physics of the scenario to what we can actually do with the system and where we can push it.
Can you speak a little bit about what the goal is there?  What do we want to achieve in terms of our sort of optimum performance, and so forth, with the system?

ROD TUCKER:
We're doing two things.  We're looking at what the fundamental limitations are.  If you're going to understand how to make things better you really need to understand how far you can go.  It turns out that very little work has been done on this in the past so we're doing a fairly detailed analysis, in fact using thermodynamics as you say, to understand what the very best you could ever achieve within the laws of physics.
How could you build a network that takes advantage of every aspect of the laws of physics to minimise the energy consumption?  The news there is good.  We could improve, potentially, the energy efficiency of the network by a factor of 1000.  We could potentially make the network 1000 times more efficient than it is at the moment.
So one aspect of our work is looking at those fundamental limitations to understand how far you can go.  The second part of our work is to understand why the existing equipment and the existing network uses so much and a lot of that has to do with the engineering of the network and the way the network has evolved.
As more data comes onto the network the people who build the network, the people who own parts of the network, just add more equipment sometimes without necessarily thinking about whether it's the most energy efficient way of doing it.
So the second thing that we're doing is looking at how we could redesign the network.  It turns out that when you send that email that we talked about before, from Melbourne to someone in California, that email goes through about 20 switching centres and every time it goes through a switching centre it uses energy.  But you don't need to go through 20 switching centres you could rebuild the network with about five.  
That's one aspect of the kind of thing we're looking at is working out ways that you could rewire the network, if you like, to make it more efficient to use less of these energy consuming resources.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
How much of the problem is based on redundancy?

ROD TUCKER:
So redundancy is one aspect of it.  We, the users, expect the network to work all the time and if some farmer digs up an optical fibre cable then we expect it to keep working.  So in fact what happens is that there is always another fibre cable somewhere else, one is dug up within a fraction of a second, less than you even realise, it's switched to the other cable.
So there is a factor of two there in redundancy and it's hard to reduce that factor of two because you really do need the redundancy.  But a factor of two is not large in the scheme of things, we're talking here of factors of 30 and 1000.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
Tell us a bit about the calculations that you make in order to determine how much energy we could potentially aim for as a sort of limit, how do you go about working those numbers out?

ROD TUCKER:
This is the most fun part of the research because it's really getting down to what I enjoy doing, it's the laws of physics.  Basically the data from your computer is a bunch of electrons in a wire and then to send that data over the optical fibre network those electrons have to be converted to light and, in fact, light travels in particles which are called photons.  Photons carry energy.
So the calculations really go down to the very basics of how you transport energy in electrons, in an electrical circuit, and how you convert those electrons into photons and then how those photons can travel on an optical fibre using minimum energy.
So it goes down really to the basic laws of physics, the physics of electrons and the physics of photons.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
You're listening to Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne Australia.  Our guest today is Professor Rod Tucker and we're speaking about greening the internet.
Rod, as more and more data is being moved from sort of our local systems into the cloud, as it were, or offsite storage locations does that give us options to reduce the number of routers, and so forth, that we have in the network and, as a result, reduce the energy consumption?

ROD TUCKER:
I'm glad you asked that question because this is one of my passions right now, we're working on a project that's looking at the question of cloud computing and the energy consumption of cloud computing.
This is a much more complicated problem than just understanding the energy consumption of the internet by itself.  What cloud computing offers is the possibility of storing data in data centres and using data centres, in fact, to do computing rather than in your computer at home.  So you might actually even do some word processing with a very, very simple often called dumb computer that basically connects via the internet and via the cloud to some computer, somewhere in the world, that does all the word processing for you and stores your data.  
It's a really interesting question to understand which is the best way to build such a network to minimise energy consumption, you can save energy in the home and certainly that's a big advantage if you can use a small dumb computer that only consumes a few watts rather than maybe 50 or 100 watts of current computers, that's saving a lot of energy.
But on the other hand as you then transmit more data over the network to constantly access the data in the storage and in the data centres around the world you're going to need more optical fibres and you're going to need more routers which will then consume more energy.
So there is a really interesting question here to understand how to best build a cloud network that can overall minimise the amount of energy and that's something that we're working on.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
Just how many different groups are involved in pursuing this reduction in energy use of the internet?

ROD TUCKER:
So the University of Melbourne is one of the founding members of the Green Touch consortium, which is a consortium of about 15 companies and universities from around the world and, in fact, that number is growing as we speak there are more companies coming on board.  I'm in fact Chair of one of the technical committees of this Green Touch consortium where there will be a series of milestones and objectives set for research projects which will be targeting specifically an improvement in the energy efficiency of the network of a factor of 1000, that was closer to the number I was talking about before, by the year 2020.
So there is a goal to achieve these improvements and there will be, basically, teams of people working from the different universities and companies together on trying to achieve these goals.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
Rod, the National Broadband Network in Australia is pretty much the only project of its type in the world and given the enormous scale of Australia as a country and the distance between the cities, can you can say something about what this means for people internationally in terms of learning how to establish such a large network for a relatively small population?

ROD TUCKER:
Yes.  Australia's National Broadband Network is really the first truly national network bringing fibre to the home.  There are some examples of countries that have a fairly high penetration of fibre to the home including Korea and Japan.  But this is really the first truly national broadband network of its kind where fibre will be going to 90 per cent of homes, well in fact possibly 93 per cent and the remainder with optical fibre and satellite.
So this really is unique.  When you take into account the fact that Australia is almost the same size as the continental United States, although their population is much smaller, it is really a huge undertaking and the world is watching Australia because this is really leading the way and we are certainly ahead of the United States and Europe in this kind of technology.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
Professor Rod Tucker, Director of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society, at the University of Melbourne, thank you very much for being our guest on Up Close today and we wish you the very best of luck in this important field.

ROD TUCKER:
Thank you.

SHANE HUNTINGTON:
Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is brought to you by Marketing and Communications of the University of Melbourne Australia.  Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  
Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Shane Huntington, until next time, good bye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au Copyright 2010 the University of Melbourne.


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