Cloud or blockchain: which con­sumes the most en­ergy?

The Guardian Australia - - Technology - Jack Schofield

The main aim of the de­cen­tralised web (DWeb) is to re­move the power of cen­tralised “gate­keep­ers” such as Face­book and Google, who hoover up the world’s data and mon­e­tise it by sell­ing ad­ver­tis­ing. It re­minds me of the orig­i­nal con­cept of the web, where ev­ery com­puter would be both a client and a server, shar­ing in­for­ma­tion on a more or less equal ba­sis.

Of course, that is not how real life works. What ac­tu­ally hap­pens is that you get a power law dis­tri­bu­tion with a few large en­ti­ties and a long tail of small ones.

As Clay Shirky wrote in 2003: “In sys­tems where many peo­ple are free to choose be­tween many op­tions, a small sub­set of the whole will get a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of traf­fic (or at­ten­tion, or in­come), even if no mem­bers of the sys­tem ac­tively work to­wards such an out­come. This has noth­ing to do with moral weak­ness, sell­ing out, or any other psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion. The very act of choos­ing, spread widely enough and freely enough, cre­ates a power law dis­tri­bu­tion.”

The web still has plenty of va­ri­ety, but al­most ev­ery­one is fa­mil­iar with one gi­ant search en­gine, one gi­ant re­tailer, one gi­ant auc­tion site, one gi­ant so­cial net­work, one gi­ant en­cy­clopae­dia, and so on. In­deed, there is only one gi­ant in­ter­net where there used to be dozens of com­pet­ing net­works us­ing many dif­fer­ent pro­to­cols.

Ob­vi­ously, it would be bet­ter if we all agreed these things in ad­vance, based on open stan­dards. How­ever, peo­ple vote with their wal­lets, and com­pe­ti­tion re­sults in de facto stan­dards in­stead of du jour ones. Ex­am­ples in­clude Mi­crosoft Win­dows, Google Search and Face­book. Each tri­umphed in a com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place.

I am not say­ing this is the ideal so­lu­tion, just that, in most cases, it’s in­evitable.

Asyn­chronous net

One of the prob­lems with re­turn­ing to a de­cen­tralised web is that the in­ter­net is no longer de­cen­tralised. It has been re­designed around gi­ant server farms, high-speed pipes and con­tent de­liv­ery net­works. It looks in­creas­ingly like a broad­band tele­vi­sion net­work be­cause that is what it ac­tu­ally does most of the time.

To­day’s web is be­ing op­ti­mised for the de­liv­ery of Net­flix movies, BBC pro­grammes on iPlayer, Spo­tify mu­sic, live streams of ev­ery ma­jor sport­ing event, and so on. You can up­load your own live streams but com­mu­ni­ca­tions are asyn­chronous: your down­loads are much faster, and much more re­li­able, than your up­loads. It’s re­ally easy to watch 1TB of movies but an ex­er­cise in frus­tra­tion try­ing to up­load a 1TB hard­drive backup.

If you re­ally want to save en­ergy and in­ter­net re­sources, stop stream­ing stuff. Broad­cast TV and ra­dio can reach tens of mil­lions of peo­ple, and adding an­other mil­lion adds rel­a­tively lit­tle in the way of ex­tra power con­sump­tion. There is school of thought that it is bet­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment to use CDs or DVDs for al­bums or films you go back to again and again, or you could at least use dig­i­tal files stored on your PC or smart­phone.

And rather than us­ing Graphite to re­place Google Docs or Mi­crosoft Of­fice, just use a word pro­ces­sor off­line. If you run Win­dows, you al­ready have a text ed­i­tor (Notepad) and a sim­ple word pro­ces­sor (WordPad), and there are plenty of free al­ter­na­tives. That will re­duce global en­ergy use and in­crease your pri­vacy.

It’s re­ally sim­ple. If you don’t want Google to read your doc­u­ments, don’t write your doc­u­ments on Google’s com­put­ers. And if you don’t want cloud servers us­ing en­ergy, don’t use the cloud.

En­ergy and avail­abil­ity

Com­pa­nies such as Ama­zon AWS, Mi­crosoft and Google are cov­er­ing the world with server farms to make in­for­ma­tion more eas­ily avail­able. That’s harder to do with real dis­trib­uted sys­tems be­cause the thou­sands or mil­lions of sep­a­rate com­put­ers may be turned off or oth­er­wise un­avail­able when you need the data they are stor­ing. Worse, un­less it’s repli­cated, you could lose data.

It’s true that server farms con­sume an ever-grow­ing amount of elec­tric­ity, much of it used for cool­ing pur­poses. How­ever, the cost is a pow­er­ful in­cen­tive for op­er­a­tors to use cheaper re­new­ables, such as so­lar pan­els, and to re­duce their power con­sump­tion in other ways. For ex­am­ple, Face­book has built a data cen­tre in the north of Swe­den where the air is freez­ing cold, while Mi­crosoft is ex­per­i­ment­ing with un­der­wa­ter data cen­tres that are eas­ier to cool.

Mi­crosoft is also spon­sor­ing tree plant­ing in Ire­land as part of its com­mit­ment to be­com­ing car­bon neu­tral.

A prop­erly de­cen­tralised web, based on tens of mil­lions of small servers, would not have the same in­cen­tives to cut en­ergy use, nor the same economies of scale. And in re­al­ity, I ex­pect DWeb will use the same gi­ant data cen­tres as ev­ery­body else.

Graphite and blockchain

Bit­coin is hav­ing a ter­ri­ble im­pact on the world’s en­ergy con­sump­tion, and may use al­most as much as Aus­tria (8.2GW) by the end of this year. This is de­spite bit­coin min­ing mak­ing the usual tran­si­tion from widely dis­trib­uted – any­one with a PC could do it – to spe­cialised equip­ment in data cen­tres. How­ever, it’s ir­rel­e­vant to Graphite and, I sus­pect, to the rest of DWeb.

Thank­fully, GraphiteDocs does not use the Bit­coin blockchain to store any­thing ex­cept your iden­tity. This is the re­sult of Graphite’s de­ci­sion to use the Block­stack ap­pli­ca­tion de­vel­op­ment sys­tem. Apart from that, Graphite uses its own vir­tual blockchain.

To get started, you use the Block­stack browser to reg­is­ter your name on the Bit­coin blockchain. Once you’ve done that, you can use Graphite and other Block­stack apps. There are 34 in the app store. (Gaia is Block­stack’s de­cen­tralised stor­age sys­tem.)

Graphite it­self has two ob­vi­ous ad­van­tages. First, all your files are en­crypted. Sec­ond, you can store them wher­ever you like. By de­fault, Graphite uses Mi­crosoft’s Azure cloud, but you can con­nect to Drop­box, Google Drive or some other ser­vice.

Your files are en­crypted so the stor­age provider can’t read them, and they can’t be cen­sored.

DWeb or not?

The dis­trib­uted web is be­ing pro­moted by peo­ple I ad­mire, in­clud­ing web in­ven­tor Sir Tim Bern­ers-Lee, the In­ter­net Archive’s Brewster Kahle and Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker. It also has a valid rea­son to ex­ist: peo­ple re­ally should own and con­trol their own data, not just labour as un­paid serfs for surveil­lance cap­i­tal­ism. How­ever, most peo­ple fol­low the line of least re­sis­tance, so the web is not go­ing to change overnight.

Ser­vices like Graphite are worth con­sid­er­ing if you need both en­cryp­tion and the abil­ity to share se­cure files on­line, though there are other ways to do this, such as Box­cryp­tor and Whisply. DWeb apps will need to be­come eas­ier to use and mo­bile be­fore they can reach a mass mar­ket.

But I can’t see any sav­ings in en­ergy con­sump­tion com­pared with just us­ing a cloud ser­vice.

Have you got a ques­tion? Email it to Ask.Jack@the­guardian.com

In­side the cloud … a tech­ni­cian checks a server in a data cen­tre. Pho­to­graph: Juice Im­ages /Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Rows of servers in­side an Ama­zon datacen­tre. Pho­to­graph: Ama­zon Web Ser­vices

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