Recharge Your Phone With Fire

BioLite iPhone Charger - Charging With Fire

BioLite CampStove isn’t cheap at $130, but it’s a neat way to charge a gadget when you don’t have power handy. Given the way the past few weeks have been here in the north east this thing is actually getting some attention. I personally keep a generic USB battery pack in my bag for emergency charges. I think that’s still more useful in general since I’m often places where I could use a boost but an open flame would be inappropriate or more likely: illegal.

Microsoft Goes Carbon Neutral

From the giant itself:

Beginning in fiscal year 2013 (which starts this July 1), Microsoft will be carbon neutral across all our direct operations including data centers, software development labs, air travel, and office buildings. We recognize that we are not the first company to commit to carbon neutrality, but we are hopeful that our decision will encourage other companies large and small to look at what they can do to address this important issue.

This is actually rather impressive as Microsoft is a rather large company with a large data center operation. Back in 2009 they were looking at hitting 300k servers. Now with Windows Azure and a larger cloud presence, presumably that’s climbed quite a bit.

I’m sure it’s not purely a good dead, Microsoft notes in their blog post:

  • A smarter buildings pilot on Microsoft’s Redmond campus that uses software solutions to make our buildings more energy efficient, projected to achieve energy savings of approximately $1.5 million dollars in fiscal year 2013, and earn back our investment in only 18 months.

Google has tried a power meter and failed. Microsoft is dogfooding it’s effort and is seemingly doing well. I could see Microsoft expanding beyond the PC in a larger effort than in the past with solutions for businesses and perhaps eventually homes. I suspect that’s what Microsoft is really doing here. Forcing themselves to to be ahead of the curve.

Standardizing Labels for Electronics

Gizmodo wants electronics to have standardized labeling to make things easier to compare. I suggested something along these lines back in 2008 about energy efficiency. Their proposal is a little more broad though I like it.

Recently I tried to get stats on power consumption for a product from a decent sized manufacturer. Interestingly their sales and support team didn’t know how much power it consumed. They didn’t even know where to get such information and suggested they could try contacting engineering but weren’t sure if it was available. Something as basic as “how much electricity does your device use?” is not available online or upon request.

So yes, I’m 100% on board with this proposal. It’s insanity that it’s so difficult to find anything more than some silly marketing specs (3D, HD, WiFi, “Fast”). It should be listed on the product details page on any online store, or on the back of the physical packaging.

It’s easy to get all sorts of stats on components when purchased individually (RoHS, Lead free, 80+ certification, power consumption, thermal specs), but buy a device full of components and it’s a mystery in many cases regarding the real specs.

Considering how much we use our gadgets, knowing such information can mean big savings. Think about your home router and switches. Just a little power savings can add up over the 3-5 years you have them installed (and running 24×7). If you live in an area where power is expensive it may make sense to actually spend more for a higher efficiency device.

Data Center Power Consumption

It’s hardly a secret that there is a serious demand for saving power in data centers. In a recent Times Magazine article:

Data centers worldwide now consume more energy annually than Sweden. And the amount of energy required is growing, says Jonathan Koomey, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. From 2000 to 2005, the aggregate electricity use by data centers doubled. The cloud, he calculates, consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world’s electricity.

To put that in a little more perspective, the 2009 census for Sweden puts the population at 9,263,872. Sweden’s population is just slightly higher than New York City (8,274,527 in 2007) or the state of New Jersey (8,682,661 estimate in 2008). Granted Sweden’s population density is 20.6/km2 compared to New York City’s 10,482/km2 or New Jersey’s 438/km2. Population density is important since that says a lot about energy consumption. Dense populations require less energy thanks to communal resources. I still suspect the average Swede uses less electricity than the average American anyway. All these numbers were pulled from Wikipedia.

The US Department of Energy does have data on power consumption and capacity as well as forecasts on consumption and production. The obvious downside in the data is the reliance on coal, oil and gas which have environmental impacts as well as political impacts and costs (we know about the instabilities of the oil market). This is why companies with lots of servers like Google are looking very carefully at power generation alternatives such as hydroelectric and solar.

We all benefit from data center efficiency. Lower cost computing is a big advantage to startups and encourages more innovation by removing price barriers. It’s also an advantage to the general public since the technology and tricks learned eventually trickle down to consumers. We already are seeing more efficient power supplies, some even beating the original 80 PLUS certification.

Perhaps if we started tracking “performance per watt” in addition to “watts per square foot” we’d be looking at things from a more sustainable perspective.

Data center capacity and consumption is pretty interesting when you look at all the variables involved. Growth, power costs, facility size, technology available, even foreign politics play a role in what it costs to operate.

Google’s Data Center Secrets

Big news today is that Google “unveiled” (more like confirmed) some data center secrets:

Custom Servers

It has been known for years that Google has been building it’s own servers rather than buy from a vendor. They have defended this as their servers are more efficient and customized for their needs than they could ever buy. They cut out things like a video card which do nothing but add a point of failure and waste power. They put a battery on the server itself rather than have a UPS for the rack they found it to be more cheaper and more efficient. They also hang the power supply away from the rest of the system itself, presumably for cooling. This actually isn’t shocking since it’s been leaked several times before, though this is the first time that I’m aware of Google speaking publicly about their design in this much detail.

Container Data Centers

Apparently since 2005 Google has been using shipping containers as data centers. It’s been known for a long time Google was interested in the idea (as were other companies) but a first that they have actually been using them for a while. 1,160 servers per container utilizing 250 kilowatts of power = 780 watts per square foot. Very impressive.

I guess it’s only a matter of time before we see commercial servers, and perhaps even some desktops with power supplies that have their own batteries.

Update [4/11/2009 @ 5:00 PM EST]: Google has a blog post up including video of the summit.

SheevaPlug Has So Much Potential In A Small Package

One of the coolest things I’ve seen announced this year so far is the Marvell SheevaPlug.

There are so many things about it that are impressive. It’s size, it’s 1.2 GHz processor, only drawing 5 watts, it’s open design, it’s low cost. At $99 for the development kit, that’s a pretty cool device. I suspect we’ll see a lot of interesting hacks take advantage of the low cost hardware. Oh and it not only supports Linux, it’s trying to improve Linux support.

This little gadget is so tempting. I can see this being a hobbyist’s best friend.

Printable Stylesheets To Save The Environment

Printing is a really wasteful process. The obvious waste is paper, ink, and of course money. The less obvious waste is the carbon footprint of printers and making paper/ink.

The internet is a notorious waste of paper. One could argue there’s no need for printing online content since you could easily save it either as text, the entire page, or print to a PDF file (my personal preference). The main source of waste is due to the design of the page resulting in sometimes several useless pages and 1 page of useful content. The rest of them simply go in the recycling bin, or worse the trash. Some clever users preview first and only print the pages they want. Most just print.

There are a few software products out there that try and reduce the amount of wasted printing such as GreenPrint, though it requires installation, companies hate buying site licenses for this type of stuff, etc. Personally I think they are a pain and prefer to do it myself.

If every site were to include a printable stylesheet, the number of wasted pages would drop dramatically.

Without a printable stylesheet a short post on this blog would take 3 pages to print out, 2 of which were worthless navigational elements. The pages are also awkward to read. With a printable stylesheet the output not only looks nicer but is reduced to 1. That saves ink, paper and sanity.

Separate printable pages suck. They are so 1999. Nobody goes there anymore and they often drop content such as images which you may want to have.

When you look at some of GreenPrint’s statistics you can’t help but wonder how much would be saved if more sites had printable stylesheets that tried to reduce the amount of unnecessary printing is done. I’d guesstimate just getting rid of some useless design elements in printable output could likely reduce the amount of ink consumed by 30-50%.

For developers looking to get started A List Apart has a great tutorial on them. Most developers know how to do it, but printable stylesheets become an afterthought in the development process.

EnergyGuide For Computers And Servers

Energy Star Energy GuideMost appliances sold in the US are now required to ship with the infamous EnergyGuide Label. That yellow label is most associated with major appliances, but it could be utilized beyond that. It’s a pretty simple idea in principle. The label makes it very clear how much power the device consumes, and based on average usage how much it will cost the consumer to operate on a yearly basis.

Perhaps it’s about time to adopt a similar convention for computers, servers, displays, printers, and networking equipment. Doing so would have several benefits:

  • Make consumers aware of the variety in efficiency – Different products consume different amounts of power. Being able to easily compare isn’t a bad thing.
  • Encourage manufacturers to be more competitive – While things such as processors have become more efficient (Pentium D consumption:performance ratio was worse than say the Core 2 Duo), computer manufacturers aren’t really pressed to adopt the most power efficient technologies since they may increase component costs.
  • Weed out poor power supplies and power bricks – A poorly kept secret is that power supplies and those power bricks we all have under our desk aren’t the most efficient devices out there. There are however some newer ones that have improved greatly like 80 PLUS certified power supplies. By making power consumption more visible, the really cheap power supplies become a negative in computing rather than a silent component.
  • Lower costs for businesses – It’s no secret businesses (like google) are trying to lower costs in their data centers. By making power consumption more obvious, it would be easier for them to make better choices to reduce their power costs and get the most out of their budget.

The real problem is that it’s tough to go to a manufacturer’s website or a store and tell what this device will cost you to operate, and compare to another device. That doesn’t really seem necessary. It should be easy to tell.

I think such a label should include the following:

  • Estimated Yearly Electric Use – in kWh for 24×7 power consumption pattern, additionally 8×5 for desktop computers, non-networked printers, displays. For 8×5 should also show the estimated yearly electric use in standby for the remainder of the time. That’s 1 number for servers, network equipment (which operate 24×7), maximum of 3 for everything else.
  • Estimated Yearly Operating Cost – in $ based on the above kWh data.
  • Standby Power Consumption Use – How many watts the device uses when in standby. This is really to see how close it comes to meeting the one watt initiative.
  • Standby Activation Modes – Several badges indicating how standby is initiated. Including: idle timeout, user initiated, timer, auto-wake (comes out of standby when device is needed). These let the consumer know how the device can minimize power consumption.
  • Upgradable Power Supply – Is the power supply connected to the device using an industry standard so that it could be replaced/upgraded during the device’s lifetime?

The data should be made available by easily removable signage attached to the device on shipping, made available on request in stores, and available on the manufacturers website linked from the product page.

By making power consumption more obvious, it would be easier to make a decision based on TCO (total cost of ownership) that accounted for power consumption. The bigger advantage is that it would encourage manufacturers to consider power consumption as a potential way to sell a product, and that means improving power supplies and standby consumption.

It seems like an easy way to spur some innovation and allow for better decisions by consumers. Considering the cost of power is expected to rise, and the need for IT is rising, it seems like a decent proposal. Making the most of the watts available requires knowing consumption. That way keeping servers and desktops powered on is as efficient as possible.

Image from FTC