Saturday, September 29, 2012

The cost of clicks: The cloud as sociophysical problem

Several recent posts have dealt with the physical elements of connectivity, such as lost broadband at the home office, Internet cabling and how it gets installed, but this week's New York Times investigative report by James Glanz on the power demands, pollution and waste associated with data centers (a.k.a., 'the cloud' or 'big data'), is sobering reading.

For example, the power consumed by data centers is roughly 30 billion megawatts, or the equivalent of 30 nuclear power stations.

And, it is not just the shear amount of power consumed, it is the fact that most data centers are idling wastefully in order to avoid our rapid surge from users. As Ganz reports,

"Stupendous amounts of data are set in motion each day as, with an innocuous click or tap, people download movies on iTunes, check credit card balances through Visa’s Web site, send Yahoo e-mail with files attached, buy products on Amazon, post on Twitter or read newspapers online.
A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.
Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found."
The report insightfully critiques how the social drivers of Internet culture (including providers and users) play themselves out in real physical terms, i.e., power consumption, pollution and waste.  In short, the web-based industry has grown fearful of servers crashing or going off-line, while users have come to expect that every email and billions and billions of songs, movies, photos and other documents can all be stored and/or backed up on-line.  We think we no longer need big hard drives, because of the cloud, but the cloud itself is just a lot of big hard drives. (use quote)

More from the New York Times Report:

"Today, roughly a million gigabytes are processed and stored in a data center during the creation of a single 3-D animated movie, said Mr. Burton, now at EMC, a company focused on the management and storage of data.
Just one of the company’s clients, the New York Stock Exchange, produces up to 2,000 gigabytes of data per day that must be stored for years, he added.
EMC and the International Data Corporation together estimated that more than 1.8 trillion gigabytes of digital information were created globally last year.
“It is absolutely a race between our ability to create data and our ability to store and manage data,” Mr. Burton said. With no sense that data is physical or that storing it uses up space and energy, those consumers have developed the habit of sending huge data files back and forth, like videos and mass e-mails with photo attachments. Even the seemingly mundane actions like running an app to find an Italian restaurant in Manhattan or a taxi in Dallas requires servers to be turned on and ready to process the information instantaneously.
The complexity of a basic transaction is a mystery to most users: Sending a message with photographs to a neighbor could involve a trip through hundreds or thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple data centers before the e-mail arrives across the street.
“If you tell somebody they can’t access YouTube or download from Netflix, they’ll tell you it’s a God-given right,” said Bruce Taylor, vice president of the Uptime Institute, a professional organization for companies that use data centers.
To support all that digital activity, there are now more than three million data centers of widely varying sizes worldwide, according to figures from the International Data Corporation.
Nationwide, data centers used about 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, or roughly 2 percent of all electricity used in the country that year, based on an analysis by Jonathan G. Koomey, a research fellow at Stanford University who has been studying data center energy use for more than a decade. DatacenterDynamics, a London-based firm, derived similar figures."

*This is not to say that companies like Apple, Facebook and Google aren't working hard to lower emissions and power.  For more on energy efficiency initiatives at data centers, see Katie Fehrenbacher's report at gigaom.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pick-up trucks & personal computing

There once was a day when executives had desks without computers.  Then, we thought a desk was strangely empty without a PC on it.  Soon, computers other than laptops and tablets on desks may seem odd again.

Now that the PC era is officially over (fewer than half of memory chips are now used in PCs), and HP is going back into smartphones, and, mobile computing is seriously challenging established business giants, like Intel, Microsoft and Google, according to a New York Times report, I've been thinking about our relationship to the PC, those computing workhorses, or 'pick-up trucks,' as Steve Jobs called them.

Like pick-up trucks, many of us will keep one (desktop PC) around.  In fact, most homes will have one for some time and offices will no doubt keep some form of workstation for a long time to come.  I mean, let's face it, big screens are great and who can really speed type on a touch surface?  As much as I love my iPad, I feel a bit silly pecking on it when I actually learned to touch type in high school and still count it as a key skill for a professional research writer.

When the day comes, I will probably keep my last desktop machine.  I still have my first PC, a Macintosh Plus, which has pride of place on my campus office bookshelf, top left, where the most senior ancestor goes in Chinese culture, I am told.  (I also have an 'ET' Mac sitting on my file cabinet, just because it looks like art--they used to be in MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

Like old pick-up trucks, my Mac Plus was there with me throughout my PhD years, dozing beside me for those four-hour nights that were all too routine.  Our love of smartphones is profound, but it simply follows our love for machines, like pick-up trucks and personal computers.  Indeed, we love our smartphones because they are so 'personal,' like old pick-ups and the early PCs. And, like old pick-up trucks, desktop machines will be there for awhile, quietly sleeping on our desks, while we are mobile.

On another prosaic note, there is a great TED Talk by Andrew Blum about a squirrel eating his Internet, which led him to explore how the magic of the Internet is still delivered in a simple material manner around the world.

Note: The only new 'car' we ever bought was a 1984 Ford Ranger pick-up and our current truck (called a 'ute' in New Zealand) is a 1987 Nissan Navarra with a King Cab, so I know a little bit about new and old trucks.

Friday, September 14, 2012

On-line Satire, The good, the bad, the ugly

Waking in Melbourne this week, I caught an interesting ABC News piece on the rise and rise of South Korean pop culture.

Besides electronics (think LG, Samsung) and engineering (Hyundai) another success story is K-pop, Korean popular culture.  Korea is producing music and art that is very cool.  But, a viral sensation, with 150 million + hits on YouTube is a fantastic pop dance video called, Gangnam Style by Psy, who has become a pop hero.  (See post on 'Call Me Maybe') The video is fun, but it is also a commentary on social issues in Korea, according to academics interviewed by the ABC.  Social commentary in light-hearted satire seems 'all good.'

On the dark side, viral video 'mockumentary' that makes fun of the Prophet Muhammad has been a catalyst for violence in a dozen counties in the Middle East.  Google has blocked access to the video in Egypt and Libya, but did not remove the video from YouTube because the video does not violate their terms and conditions of use.

Update: 22 September - The violence around the video has escalated dramatically. A Pakistani minister offers a reward of US$100,000 to anyone who would kill the video's creator.  And, Google has stood its ground on defending free speech.

Media commentary on both the 'good' (pop culture satire) and 'bad' (violent) consequences of connectivity reflect the fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict what, when and how things go viral on the Internet.  In my 2008 article in Organization Studies, I refer to the 'unknowable pervasiveness' of connectivity as a distinctive aspect of living in a connected age.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Perils of E-Breaks

Having implied that taking a break from the Net can be a good thing, my friend Paul Teten sent me this from the Wall Street Journal, a reminder of why deciding to dis-connect doesn't always work out for the best.

This is the story of Joe Queenan's e-break, as told in the Wall Street Journal.


And, remember to stay in touch.

Monday, September 3, 2012

7 Stages of Dis-connectivity

Maybe you know the feeling of being your own Help Desk?  One of the realities of independent, flexible, anywhere/anytime, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) knowledge work is that you, the non-IT professional have to serve as your own IT department.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid pointed out the frustrations and inefficiencies of the home office in their book, The Social Life of Information (2000, Harvard Business School Press).

About a week ago, we lost our broadband at home.  It occurred early on a Saturday morning, so we gracefully took an Internet sabbath and didn't worry about it, preferring to focus on our new dog and the arrival of spring in the southern hemisphere.  Monday morning I launched my career as infrastructure analysis.  I eschewed my ISP's suggestion of using their on-line tool to help with my broadband issue. Instead, I enlisted the help of various real live IT specialists (better than me) in India and a few other countries, whose accents I could not identify for certain.  Great folks.  All too willing to help me out.  When a Filipino technician arrived at my door, I thought, wow--life imitating the Net!  Turns out that after my ISP (Internet Service Provider) had solved their network problem, somehow our wireless router no longer could connect.

Hmmm.... our ISP recommended we use their router, which because we are 'premium' customers (presumably because we pay our bills, as I have no idea what other 'premium' services we are getting), was free.  Such a deal.  Of course, it had to be couriered out to us, which would be within 2-5 business days, but I was assured it would be the lesser.  What to do in the meantime?  Well, at first I was anxious.  It seemed almost everything I wanted to do required the Internet.  OK, settle down. Surely there is something you can do. Fortunately, I have a chapter due in a month and so I took the opportunity to have two very productive writing days. Wonderful.  I didn't even miss the Net after a while. I thought of myself as being at a writers' retreat.  I experienced Zen-like bliss until the modem/router arrived as promised by the end of the second day.  We're back!

That was Round 1 of the disconnect.  Round 2 began with the optimism of a successful Round 1, wherein I got drawn into a series of optional little 'improvements' to our home network.  I figured, why not, as I had to install the new router anyway. One thing led to another and soon I was in a Bermuda Triangle of random techno-weirdness. A password here, a password there, what is the name of the new network?  Apple-related problems always take me by surprise, because I expect all things Apple to 'just work,' but indeed, that is not always the case.

I got super frustrated heading into our second weekend off-line.  Not because I couldn't work, but because I couldn't a) try out Facetime with my Dad to b) show Mom and Dad our new (rescued) dog.  Lesson: The emotions associated with dis-connectivity may be stronger for personal and family connections than being separated from work. (Although my work frustrations would have been higher, had I not been on sabbatical.

Once back on line, I was proud of my Self-Help Desk success.  Let's not talk of the productivity and cost implications of do-it-yourself IT.  Let's consider the psychological phases of dis-connectivity.

The Psychological Phases of Dis-Connectivity

Stage 1: Denial - 'This can't be happening to me.'

Stage 2: Anger - 'Dammit.'

Stage 3: Blame - 'This is so-and-so's fault' (Microsoft, telcos are the usual suspects).

Stage 4: Hope - 'They say it will be fixed any time now.'

Stage 5: Faith - 'This was probably a good thing to do anyway.'

Stage 6: Appreciation - 'Thank goodness for technology--when it works.'

Stage 7: Zen - 'I don't really need to be on-line to live a good life.'

Here is a great TED Talk by Andrew Blum about the physical reality of the Internet.

And, here are some reminders of what successful people do when they are off-line.