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October 25, 2006

Weighing the Web

                    The Internet weighs two ounces.

             Driving it takes 50,000,000 horsepower

Alienmagicmatrix3dneocommunicationtrinit_6 Richard Karlgaard of Forbes has set me to thinking by comparing his soaring home energy costs with Google's multi-gigabuck power bill. $1,200 a month  is a lot of Pacific Gas & Electric, but it seems to me that at just $3 a year per capita powering the global internet is a  bargain even by third world standards.

Yet somehow my own ISP bill gives me no joy. A dollar a day seems pretty stiff , because the electrons I feed my pet laptop  are costing me about half a billion dollars a pound. Let me explain.

I'm taking about the power that drives the bytes , not lights the lights. The late Bucky Fuller ,of geodesic fame, baffled architects by asking how much their buildings weighed. Not being paid by the pound , few gave much thought to what fraction of the stuff in their structures actually served a structural purpose. 9-11 changed that, for while a  weight-is-no-object behemoth like the Empire State Building shrugged off an Army Air Corps bomber crash in 1945, the skeletal World Trade Center's collapse taught a different lesson in false economy : mass and energy still matter. So how much does the internet weigh ? And how many horsepower does it consume?

Parts of the original  DARPAnet  were built like a tank to survive a thermonuclear holocaust. But much post-modern net construction is utterly gossamer, all air and microwaves. Wherever the two come together, boxes full of integrated circuits bear labels that specify how much power they can handle, and solid state textbooks reveal how much of the silicon gets hot, and how much just sits around . In short, you can do the math.

A statistically rough ( one sigma) estimate might be  75-100 million servers  @ ~350-550 watts each..  Call it Forty Billion Watts or ~ 40 GW.  Since silicon logic runs at three volts or so, and an Ampere is some ten to the eighteenth electrons a second, if the average chip runs at a Gigaherz , straightforward calculation reveals that some 50 grams of electrons in motion make up the Internet.

Applying the unreasonable power of dimensional analysis to the small tonnage of silicon involved yields  much the same result. As of today, cyberspace weighs less than two ounces. It's hard to gauge its heft more exactly ,since devices vary in speed, but to get a handle on The Whole Web instead of just the suburbs we're wired to , try tripling that figure-there are maybe ten times more mostly idle CPU chips in PC's than servers, and fewer very busy ones in the world's comparative handful of supercomputers .

Averaging globally , each person alive today has six watts of computational power at the disposal of their twenty watt brain . It's hard for Third Worlders to claim their six watt share of the worlds computing  horsepower , but in wired nations like America or Japan, more energy is expended on surfing than thinking.Yet just as cars contain hydraulic fluid as well as gasoline , the net has more than electrons inside-- a lot of its wire and fiber optic infrastructure  is shared.. Some cables crackle with live bandwidth while others slumber-- the mix of computer , TV and telecom traffic is unpredictable , and cable trunks branch like trees.

It is easy to put a tape measure to the backbone of this shaggy creature, but the  length of its hairy wiring  is hard to guess at . Factal geometry suggests it still takes a staggering  four miles of  copper wire to connect the average US home to optical broadband . With copper at three dollars a pound , that  25 pound wire link  to the nearest optical  cable makes ultratransparent glass a staggering bargain at ten times its weight in gold--it does the work of  a billion times its weight in copper. The almost infinite bandwidth of ultratransparent glass has pared the web down to run impressively well on ten nanograms of electrons per netizen, a figure optical computing may not much change , for it takes electrons to make photons.

Just as well- if the net ran on recycled light , it would  be weightless as an IP lawyer's word. As matters stand , it takes upwards of 50 million horsepower to horse those critical 50 grams of electrons around . When users push the pedal to the floor, the horsepower unleashed  on the information superhighway exceeds the power of all the hybrid vehicles on the American road.

Copyright  2006 Russell Seitz all rights reserved .


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Since much of the web today is carried on fiber optics, what is the weight of all those photons?

What? Doesn't every else live in a Faraday Cage?

Maybe that explains the dearth of trick-or-treaters....

You're talking about active computation -- the bits going through processors. How about the mass of stored data? All of the massive storage arrays the large net players have should account for something.

1.21 Gigawatts!?!!? What was I thinking?

Surely, you should only be counting the weight of the information itself. Just counting the weight of the electrons, which are one arbitrary part of the media doesn't seem right.

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