Wednesday Jun 20, 2007

Outsource your IT energy consumption with Sun Ray

I worked a few days from my home town, Racine, Wisconsin because it was the most convenient stopping off point for our trip to a Caribbean Wedding (You might not have heard the phrase, "Wisconsin -- gateway to the Caribbean?") During one Wednesday evening sailboat race I looked back at the base of the new smokestacks which will soon dominate the skyline over Wind Point penninsula. Two years ago the Wisconsin Public Service Commission made the unfortunate choice of continuing the almost exclusive dependence on coal energy. The construction of two massive new coal power plants promised to bring much-needed jobs to the area and here, deep in the rust belt, that's all it takes for almost any project to have overwhelming public support. The thermal pollution alone will impact an area of Lake Michigan the size of West Virginia.

Few people want such behemoths in their back yard but most of us use the services this electricity provides. The Great Lakes states aren't ideal for most alternative energy sources. Norway and California have higher mountains for hydropower, Iceland and New Zealand have more potential for geothermal, Florida, Texas and North Africa have better potential for solar energy. Ideally we could transport alternative energy from places where it is more easily produced. For example, Ireland could produce 7 times its energy consumption in wind energy. Denmark occasionally produces more than 100% of its consumption from wind power and Iceland is close to acheiving carbon neutrality by utilizing its geothermal and hydroelectric resources. But overhead power lines add their own visual pollution and provide a vulnerable target for lightning strikes and wind damage. Until stable, room temperature superconductors are a reality, I\^2R losses will make it impractical to plug our PCs into a cheap utility halfway around the world.

But then I thought about the energy I was using while working remotely. My Sun Ray client was consuming about 4 watts of coal power, the monitor consumed another dozen or so but my local consumption was much less than it would have been if I'd used a Windows P.C. Most of my IT energy needs were being serviced by a utility in Ireland and a percentage of this electricity was generated from an offshore wind farm. I was working squarely in coal country where every kilowatt/hour I consume produces over 2 pounds of carbon dioxide, but I was using wind power. Could this be extended to corporations and expanded so that IT service providers could set up their servers where energy is cheap and clean? I will tell you that it is technically possible. I had expected that the trans Atlantic use of a Sun Ray client would be slow because of the latency in what I assumed would be one or more satellite hops. But for what I was doing (email, terminal, web browser, office applications), the Sun Ray performance was fine. In fact I found that for email it was faster than the laptop. When I select a message on the laptop, the entire contents of the email had to come through VPN from the IMAP server to the client on the laptop and rendered on the screen but when I select a message on the Sun Ray, most of the work was being done locally on the server in Ireland and only the relatively small final rendered email text was compressed and transferred to the client. I intended to video the Sun Ray vs Laptop comparison for upload to joost and demonstrate that I could easily run the client from a couple of cheap 1 foot square amorphous Solar panels but I ran out of time.

Someone could profit from this by advertising: "Reduce your IT energy bill and carbon footprint, move your IT business logic to our servers in sunny Australia!" (or windy Ireland, wavy Scotland...) Would this work? Do real-world companies, governments and other IT consumers pay for the hunk of hot hardware on their desk, or do they really just want the service that that hunk of hot hardware provides?

I suppose by posting this here I ruin my chances of being the world's first IT energy consumption outsourcing consultant but I like working for Sun and if someone else succeeded at this, it would be good for everyone... except possibly the guy who had planned to sell 1215 train car loads of coal to WE Energy's Oak Creek plant every day.

Tuesday Mar 27, 2007

Science Newsflash, temperature causes CO2 not vice-versa

I heard this fascinating science tidbit on NPR's Living on Earth program:

"It appears that temperature appears to drive CO2 and not vice versa." -- U.S. Senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma (former chairperson of the U.S. Senate committee on the environment)

I only had a few years of university Chemistry and only a B.S. in physics so I may have missed the chapter on carbon alchemy that great physics minds like Einstein, Hawkins and Inhofe are aware of. Actually in a way he is correct:

C + O2 + heat ---> CO2

(o.k. heat and temperature aren't the same thing but we'll pretend) In simpler terms:

Carbon (e.g. Coal) + Oxygen + heat ---> CO2(Carbon Dioxide)

Was Inhofe was correct all along? No. As Al Gore responded, "One scientist said it's a stronger consensus than on anything except perhaps gravity." A grade school student can prove that burning carbon creates carbon dioxide. Any university lab can demonstrate that an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide traps more heat than an atmosphere with less. I'm unaware of any dispute over the strong evidence that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen over the past century. There is also good evidence that average global temperature is rising. The only serious doubt is whether human contribution to CO2 is a significant factor in global climate. There may be arguments against human caused global warming (e.g. If any solid evidence of a warming trend is found on Mars) and there are arguments against the Kyoto treaty (e.g. Industries are encouraged to move towards exempt economies with already high coal usage.), but Inhofe represents a weird political paradigm where so-called conservatives are more interested in conserving their own mindset than they are in conserving the ecological balance of our planet.




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