Networks Are more Green Than You Think

Are Green IT experts addressing the wrong problem? Last month,  a report said that in the public cloud, end user access over wireless networks uses ten times as much energy as the data centre. However the report, from Australia’s Centre for Energy Efficient Telecommunications (CEET), has come under strong attack from experts. Kate Craig-Wood, managing director of British hosting company Memset took issue with the numbers – and here she explains why:

As well as my day job running Memset, I’m a part-time PhD student researching cloud computing in relation to climate change, specifically the question of whether Moore’s Law (in its broad sense) will sufficiently mitigate the Rebound Effect in relation to ICT to allow ICT to fulfil its promise of greening society without itself becoming a major emitter. I am also chair of Intellect UK’s climate change group and a member of the ministerial Green Economy Council.

My PhD supervisor and I have just finished a body of work on energy cost of internet mediated transactions, including the network. In pursuit of that, we built a model to determine the energy per byte for three scenarios (general cloud services consumed at home, media streaming at home, and general cloud services consumed on the hoof). We are in the process of submitting the paper to a peer-reviewed journal so the work is not yet public but I can can share some elements. The Technology Strategy Board is also funding work in this area via the ESP KTN (the knowledge transfer network for electronics, sensors and photonics).

Networks don’t use much energy

A key finding of our research was that the energy consumed in networks is utterly inconsequential to the energy consumed at the data centre and the energy consumed in the home (for general cloud services).

Further, for high-bandwidth activities like media streaming almost all the energy is consumed in the home (93 percent of it if you include the phone line ad smart TV). Of that the home wireless access point (WAP) is a significant proportion admittedly (about 25 percent of the total) but here common sense must apply: home broadband router-WAPs use less than 10 watts – at most 240Wh per day for a household. If that household likes hot drinks and there are 4 in the family, that’s about the amount of energy the kettle needs to make a round of tea each morning.

In further response to to the CEET paper regarding mobile phone networks, a quick sanity check helps. According to this learned IET article a UK 3G network uses about 12,000 base stations, and they use about 500Watts each. This is for one mobile network – the Mobile Operators Association (MOA) says there are 52,500 mobile phone masts in the UK.

500W * 52,500 base stations * 24 hours / 30m adults ≈ 21 Wh / British adult / day

To put this in perspective, the average Briton consumes 195 kWh/day of energy. This suggests that mobile base stations account for 0.01 percent (one hundredth of one percent) of a typical person’s energy budget – not exactly something to get excited about given how deeply integrated mobile phones are into our daily lives. It should be noted in passing that mobile cell basestations in some parts of the world are more carbon-intensive because they are not powered by mains electricity but rather by diesel.

Our own research suggests that the ratio of energy consumed by the data centre to the 3G basestation in a mobile cloud transaction is more like 10:1 than CEET’s 1:10.

However, it should be noted that the handset/phone itself dominates the energy-per-byte equation accounting for around 75 percent of the total. Of that 75 percent, however, 90 percent of the phone’s energy is actually its embedded energy, the energy put in to manufacture it (assuming a 2 year lifespan). Should we be demonising the phone, then? Over a two year lifetime a phone might use 150kWh of energy; which is  less than one day of a British individual’s budget (0.1 percent of our personal footprint).

These figures come from Apple, a company which is more open about its energy than many commentators appear to believe.

How did the figures go wrong?

So where did CEET go so wrong? I’ve been having a bit of a look in their appendix:

One clear issue is their assessment that a typical mobile phone uses 3Watts, which they appear to have scaled up and applied as the power requirements for a 4G connection. This is just plain wrong. If you take the battery out of your smart phone and read its label you will note that it says about 6Wh for a normal-sized one or perhaps 9Wh for a big one like a Samsung Note. If they used 3 Watts normal smartphones would discharge in 2 hours. They typically last more like 36 hours, so the power draw averages around 0.3 Watts (depending how much you use it).

Even if you take into account charging inefficiency (say 70 percent) that’s only about 0.4Watts – so CEET is out by close to an order of magnitude.

CEET also grabbed onto an ABI research figure suggesting that the number of wireless cloud service users would increase from 1.1 percent to 19 percent from 2008 to 2014. As part out our research we looked at the data usage of Memset staff – a small data set but still useful. On average our staff (all of whom are technically-minded and use cloud services on their smart phones) use 189MB/month (the median was 90MB/mo). If we then apply the 69 percent growth rate from the ABI research (which, by the way, I don’t think has been borne out over the last few years) to our own little sample group), it would suggest that by next year the average bandwidth consumed by mobile users would be about 320MB/month. The CEET paper assumes that by 2014 the average traffic per user will be 1.3-2.1GByte – a five-fold error.

They also assume that Wi-Fi power is a good measure of femtocells. First, the 2011 Cisco paper suggesting that 33 percent of handset and tablet traffic will be offloaded through “femtocells” seems wrong by common sense – as very few people are actually using them. What people are actually doing is using Wi-Fi hot spots a lot more. Admittedly that point is perhaps somewhat terminological but it does suggest a disconnection from reality.

However, as we have showed, if you use Wi-Fi hot spots and access points more, you decrease the total energy consumed per byte, you don’t increase it. CEET has taken the Wi-Fi energy and multiplied it up for the increase in traffic!

Home Wi-Fi cells are very inefficiently used; the average Brit consumes 23GB/month of broadband and if that’s all delivered over home Wi-Fi, using a WAP that consumes 10 Watts, it is roughly three orders of magnitude (1,000 times) less efficient than, say, a core Internet route. We have also shown that the power consumed by a home WAP is basically static (ie. it doesn’t go up if you use more data). If you put more data through that WAP and broadband connection it doesn’t cost you any more power since it is operating at a tiny fraction of capacity.

So greater use of femtocells and Wi-Fi means efficiency, not more energy.

Regardless, as described above, Wi-Fi hotspots are nothing to get in a flap about.

Data centres are getting more efficient

As for the data centres bit, yes, more power is going to data centres, but actually as an industry we are quite unusual, in that thus far we have demonstrated continuous and exponential improvements in energy efficiency. Similar rules apply to storage and networks; while we are consuming exponentially more, the efficiency of our storage systems and networks per-byte is also increasing exponentially. I have demonstrated this in my own early research, a relevant summary of which you can find here.

This is largely thanks to Moore’s law in its broadest application – the doubling of computer performance every 18 months per byte, and also per Watt. It is also thanks to the good works of experts (such as Romonet) in improving the mechanical and electrical efficiency of data centres. Further, we are progressively consolidating away from inefficient half-filled datacentres into modern Internet Data Centres (IDCs) the likes of which Amazon, Google, Facebook and my company Memset run. Given how vital they are to our day-to-day lives their energy consumption is pretty inconsequential. The ICT sector in Britain is also worth about 10% of GDP so we deliver good “bang for carbon-buck”.

ICT drives efficiency

When you factor in the fact that ICT is actually a major enabler of societal efficiency improvements, as described in various places, for instance Intellect UK’s high-tech low-carbon report, GeSI SMART 2020 “Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age”, and WWF’s “saving the first billion tonnes”. Greenpeace also highlights the importance of “greening with ICT” on its Cool IT leaderboard.

It is a no-brainer; in exchange for our industry’s two or three percent of emissions, we have the potential to save 16 percent of emissions across society! But we do need data centres to do that.

It is illogical to suggest that all data centres should run off renewables. There is more demand for renewable-sourced electricity than there is supply, and there are plenty of other vastly more energy intensive industries that should be being persuaded to use green power. In Britain, for instance, nobody is investing in renewable power generation and that is a big problem for us.

Facebook is clearly the trailblazer for efficient data centre design with its Open Compute project and there is still much good work to be done there. I think it is perfectly reasonable for Facebook not to fret about sourcing renewable power while there is such a dearth of it. For Facebook  energy is just a supply, not a core competence, and Facebook should instead focus on what it is expert in: efficient computing.

The issues generally come from people

  1. extrapolating forwards without understanding the nature of the numbers they are investigating (eg. bandwidth or data centres),
  2. multiplying numbers up to a global scale which then sound terrifying without comparing them to other activities, and
  3. taking figures from papers and reports out of context and without understanding them.

Kate Craig-Wood is founder and managing director of Memset.

Are you a green IT guru? Take our quiz!

TechWeekEurope Staff

View Comments

  • Ms Kate Craig-Wood's opinion piece above takes exception to a recent CEET White Paper on Wireless Cloud. Her comments are misleading about the intention and results of the white paper and require a response.
    We agree with Ms Craig-Wood’s observiation that telecommunications often substitutes for less energy-efficient alternatives – take telecommuting in place of real commuting by car or public transport – and can help to reduce the overall carbon footprint. But it is also necessary to understand that telecommunications does generate a carbon footprint – it doesn’t come for free.
    The CEET White Paper addresses the issue of the additional energy consumption produced by accessing cloud computing services via a wireless device. CEET considers this issue as important because there is a clear convergence of cloud services for consumers and wireless access. Until the publication of the CEET White Paper, the discussion of the “greenness” of cloud services was almost exclusively focused on enterprise cloud services and the data centres that provide them. These publications did not properly account for the fact that the data must traverse a communications network between the user and data centre. With the growing popularity of wireless access it became apparent to CEET that the cloud “eco-system” needed to be extended to include this network and the growth in consumer use of cloud services.
    The CEET White Paper is not an argument against using wireless devices. It is an argument for using them intelligently in a carbon-constrained world.
    Broadly speaking, Ms Craig-Wood’s analysis confuses the total energy consumed by parts of the telecommunications network with the additional energy used for a specific service. We take the existence and general usefulness of telecommunications networks to be a given, but we remain concerned that their energy consumption will become a significant issue if they are not used intelligently.
    Ms Craig-Wood suggests that the energy consumed by a mobile base station is insignificant and provides a calculation of the ratio of energy consumed in data centres to mobile base stations. The relevance of this is unclear and it is difficult to ascertain if she has modeled the same process that CEET modeled in the white paper. The CEET white paper clearly explains that it compares the annual energy consumption of wireless access to the energy consumption required to deliver these services from data centres. This is very distinct from the annual energy consumption of mobile services in general (which appears to be what Ms. Craig-Wood has calculated) and energy consumption of data centers. This distinction is clearly made and explained in the white paper.
    If Ms. Craig-Wood is comparing the CEET white paper energy consumption values with total mobile network energy consumption and total data center energy consumption, such a comparison is inappropriate. Cloud services are only a component of wireless traffic and only a component of data centre traffic. All this is explained in some detail in the Cisco reports cited in the CEET white paper.
    Ms. Craig-Wood suggests that CEET appears to have incorrectly estimated the power consumption of a mobile hand set . Here, she appears to confuse average power with peak power. The 3 Watts used in the CEET model refers to peak power, which is expended only during the short time intervals that the handset is exchanging data with the wireless base station. The average power draw is much lower than the (instantaneous) peak power draw. The value of 3Watts peak power was obtained from measurement of several wireless devices during data transfer. The power consumption during non-transfer times is significantly less and was modeled accordingly.
    Ms. Craig-Wood disagrees with the use of ABI and Cisco data for forecasting future service demand. This issue comes down to what one believes is a more realistic projection. CEET has adopted the forecasts by companies such as ABI Research, Cisco and the others cited in the white paper. Ms. Craig-Wood has adopted a sample size of her co-workers which she admits is “small”. We contend that the ABI Research and Cisco methodologies are more rigorous. The Cisco methodology is explained in detail on their corporate web site and, we expect, is more widely accepted than Ms. Craig-Wood’s approach. The same applies to the issue of offloading mobile data onto WiFi networks. The figure used in the white paper for off-loading also comes from Cisco. Again, Ms. Craig-Wood appears to be taking issue with Cisco’s methodologies and results. CEET is comfortable with using the results from Cisco’s research.
    Ms. Craig-Wood comments on the energy consumption of Wi-Fi hot spots. In her statements on this, she appears to have missed an important point about highly-shared networks. As explained in the white paper, for highly shared networks, the power consumption can be calculated by multiplying the energy per bit (which has units of Joules per bit) by the data rate (which has units of bits per second) to give power (Joules per second). This approach is almost universally adopted in the peer-reviewed technical literature to calculate the increase in power resulting from an increase in data rate.
    The CEET white paper shows that small cells and shared Wi-Fi are more energy efficient than 4G and home WiFi. However, in her statements about Wi-Fi and femtocells, Ms. Craig-Wood seems to confuse the distinction between energy consumption and energy efficiency. The greater use of femtocells and Wi-Fi, together with an increase in traffic, can result in a simultaneous increase in energy efficiency and energy consumption.
    It is important to note that energy is consumed when you use a telecommunications service. Even though energy efficiency may be improving, a large increase in usage by consumers will drown out the improvement in efficiency. That is what is happening in networks today – traffic is growing much faster than energy efficiency. If this trend continues it will lead to substantial increases in overall energy use in telecommunications networks. In fact, this is the key challenge to improving telecommunications energy efficiency.
    At the end of her article, Ms Craig-Wood makes three statements. Her first point is that it is an error for someone to “extrapolate[e] forwards without understanding the nature of the numbers they are investigating”. We agree. We haven’t done that in the CEET White Paper. The use of cloud computing with wireless networks is an important issue and one that consumers and network providers should consider. We also believe that using good data is important. The CEET White Paper uses well-founded research from organisations such as Cisco, ABI Research and others. This is far more acceptable than data generated from a small informal survey of “co-workers”.
    Ms Craig-White’s second point is that it can be misleading to “multipl[y] numbers up to a global scale which then sound terrifying without comparing them to other activities”. We agree. We haven’t done that in the CEET White Paper. Indeed we have presented comparisons in the paper and clearly show that the energy consumption of wireless access to cloud services is only a fraction of the total energy consumed by mobile networks and data centres.
    Ms Craig-White’s third point is that it is an error to “tak[e] figures from papers and reports out of context and without understanding them”. We agree. We hope our own work will not be taken out of context or without understanding. We welcome this opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings that may have arisen as a result of the comments on the CEET White Paper.
    Indeed, we hope that the CEET White Paper will be widely read and discussed. It is a contribution to the debate about the increasing use of energy for telecommunications services. We hope it makes the point clearly that the issue of energy use is not just confined to data centres but is also an issue for telecommunications network operators and for intelligent users of telecommunications services.

Recent Posts

Facebook Demands Old FTC Documents In Antitrust Battle

Fresh development in Meta's battle against US regulator, seeking to force Facebook to divest itself…

3 hours ago

Fate Of Newport Wafer Fab Uncertain, As Government Delays Sale Decision

Government delays decision over whether the UK's largest maker of chips can be purchased by…

4 hours ago

Amazon Faces UK Investigation For Suspected Anti-competitive Practices

Another probe. Busy week for the UK's CMA after it confirms investigation of Amazon over…

21 hours ago

UK Regulator Begin Probe Of Microsoft’s Activision Buyout

The CMA confirms start of investigation into Microsoft's $69 billion purchase of leading gaming holding…

22 hours ago

Online Safety Bill Tweak To Combat Russian Misinformation

Foreign interference and misinformation to be designated a priority offence under Online Safety Bill, the…

23 hours ago