Sunrise on the age of efficiency
By bnitz on Nov 14, 2005
My sailing instructor used to say, "Anyone can sail when there's wind." When the wind is good, it doesn't matter if your boat is heavy with untrimmed, blown-out sails and a fathom of green slime on the keel. But the most recent race I sailed with my dad and nephew was during the doldrums of August, when the Lake Michigan breeze slackens and the energy to power a sailboat is no longer in free abundance. Tell-tail threads droop from the halyards, pipe smoke from the crew of a wooden ketch hangs in the folds of their sagging spinnaker. The fleet separates. Those who know how to use every wave and breath of wind move to the front. The rest are left behind swatting flys and watching dead fish float past. They may not finish at all.
The last couple of decades weren't very interesting for those who believe in efficiency. Efficiency doesn't attract attention when resources are cheap and abundant. The font size of "miles per gallon" in car advertisements shrunk, as did the actual mpg values. A similar effect was seen in the computer industry. When chip density, CPU clock speed and memory were in steep exponential growth, efficiency engineering was put on the back burner. This resulted in a world where millions of lines of bloated inefficient code went unnoticed because by time software shipped, the hardware was fast enough to hide performance problems. It also resulted in a layer of "old" PCs in our landfills, which may have had only a couple of years of useful life.
It seems likely that the age of solving every problem with "brute force", liters, horsepower and GHz will come to an end. Oil has more than doubled in price since 2003. And whether or not we soon notice a flattening of the Moore, MIPS and Memory curves; administrators are already bumping into space, air conditioning and circuit breaker limitations in their server labs. So, for the first time in a couple of decades, efficiency is relevant. I've long suspected that Sun was in a good position to take advantage of a new age of efficiency. It's reassuring to see that others within Sun share this view. Efficiency isn't a lost art, it was just misplaced for a while.
When I taught sailing, I used the iceboat "Debutante" as an example of what is possible when wind is used efficiently. In 1938 on Lake Winnebago near Oshkosh, Wisconsin the Debutante set a record speed of 143 m.p.h., in a 72 m.p.h wind.