Alcatel Lucent Vows To Boost Network Efficiency 1000-Fold

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

The Green Touch consortium, led by Alcatel Lucent’s Bell Labs, promises it can cut the energy used by the world’s data networks  by a factor of 1000

A consortium led by Bell Labs, Alcatel Lucent’s research arm, has promised to develop new technology in the next five years, that could reduce the overall energy consumption of the world’s data networks.

The Green Touch consortium grew from discussions about network efficiency which started at Bell Labs, and which concluded that fundamental physical laws would allow the world to use much less energy in its networks.

The group, which has launched with 15 mermbers, has been welcomed by governments and academics, but has yet to specify what technology it will develop, and how it will arrange the potentially thorny issue of intellectual property rights to technology which will be shared amongst members.

“Networks produce 300 million tonnes of CO2,” said Gee Rittenhouse, vice president and head of research at Bell Labs. “That’s the equivalent of 50 million cars – twenty percent of the cars licensed in the United States.”

The traffic on data networks is growing exponentially, and the energy used by them will also explode unless something is done, he warned: “The technology we know about today simply cannot compensate for this spectacular growth.”

Scientists addressed the problem over the summer of 2009, and concluded that the energy used in networks could be reduced by a factor of up to 10,000 without breaking fundamental laws such as the Shannon Limit, but it would require a fundamental rethink to achieve a massive reduction, said Rittenhouse:
“Today’s networks are optimised for performance and simplicity”.

The consortium’s research will be carried out using government money and private funds. “Governments are the natural funding mechanism for this,” said Rittenhouse. Asked by eWEEK Europe at the London press conference, how much Alcatel Lucent itself would spend, CEO Ben Verwaayen said “this will take tens of millions of any currency,” and assured the audience that Alcatel Lucent “would be pround and happy to spend our share of that.”

Government support was in evidence. “Truly global challenges have always been best addressed by bringing together the brightest minds in an unconstrained, creative environment,” said a statement from the US Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, while a comment from Ed Milliband the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change read: “The Green Touch Initiative shows how business can play its part in delivering the low carbon society we are working to achieve”.

The organisation has not yet arranged membership fees, or a secretariat, or specified how it will share any intellectual property which its members might contribute to the organisation’s goal, but Rittenhouse assured the London launch event that the group would follow standard procedures used by similar initiatives: “There are plenty of good models for sharing IP”.

The technology produced would be commercially viable and would naturally replace existing networks, as it will be backwards compatible, members assured the audience.

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Members include operators such as Telefonica, China Mobile, AT&T, Swisscom and Portugal Telecom, technology companies such as Freescale Semiconductor, Samsung and Imec, and academic bodies including the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the French research institute INRIA and the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband Enabled Socity (BES).

The group so far includes none of Alcatel Lucent’s direct competitors such as Ericsson or Huawei, but they are definitely invited, said Sam Samuel, executive director of Bell Labs in Ireland and the UK.

There were many moves to “green” the network industry in 2009, including efforts led by the ITU, which ensured that IT got a mention in the limited outcome of the UN’s COP15 summit in Copenhagen.

Alcatel Lucent has also received money from the US government for green data centres.