clouds versus pcs

George Gilder had an article in Wired on data centers as clouds. My instinct is to dismiss anything Gilder writes because of his track record of wacky ideas (e.g. feminism is destroying civilization and supply side economics makes sense). But, in this article, Gilder reports on some smart people. The sheer massive use of electrical power in data centers comes up clearly. I remember 10 years ago looking at a room full of server racks in Sandia Labs and starting the obvious calculation of 300 watts times 2000 boxes and adjusting my whole view of PCs as small replacements for those huge dinosaur mainframes we used to have.

Discussing Sun’s efforts to build super dense systems, Gilder writes:

And with 1-terabyte drives, available next year, Bechtolsheim will be able to pack the Net into three cabinets, consuming 200 kilowatts and occupying perhaps a tenth of a row at Replicating Google’s 200 petabytes of hard drive capacity would take less than one data center row and consume less than 10 megawatts, about the typical annual usage of a US household.

(To me, the 10 megawatt/hours as the average consumption of a US household is an incredible number, but it turns out to be true. Also there is the, only an supply side economist would do this silly comparison to annual household use – really it’s more like 9000 times the annual use of a household.) The obvious flaw in the logic is the assumption that the size of the contents of the online network will remain about the same as storage costs drop – and Google is working hard to put more and more “stuff” online.

Nonetheless, one key question is the balance between centralized storage/compute centers and the edge and relative power efficiencies will make a big difference. If the dominant paradigm of computing becomes one of connecting your lightweight mobile device to a network and invoking operations somewhere in the cloud, the industry landscape will look very different from what it looks like today and computing will much more look like todays electrical system. Perhaps we will even see an ironic situation where computing becomes a centralized utility just when electrical power decentralizes or perhaps the decentralization of electric power generation will force decentralization of computing.

Locality has always been key to performance. But there are all kinds of locality. The data center cloud makes sense if high speed local networks are so much faster than the internet that it makes sense to centralize data centers, but the internet is fast enough that it makes sense to use remote data centers. That may be a durable balance or it may not.


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