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December 31, 2006

Weighing the Web

Alienmagicmatrix3dneocommunicationtrinit_12 The Internet weighs two ounces

It takes 50,000,000 horsepower                             to run it
Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard's comparison of his home energy costs to Google's multi-gigabuck annual power bill is intriguing. $1,200 a month is rather a lot of Pacific Gas & Electric.

But like the 22.6 Megawatt-Hour monthly power trip of Al Gore's Nashville Eco-mansion , it only serves to make the $3 a year per capita it takes to power the global internet seem a roaring bargain, even by third world standards. Still, my dollar a day ISP bill gives me no joy , 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. Geodesic dome guru Bucky Fuller baffled architects by asking how much their buildings weighed?  Not being paid by the pound , few cared , but  mass and energy matter more than ever in the aftermath of 9-11. Built like a Hummer on steroids , the Empire State Building shrugged off a  bomber crash in 1945 while the World Trade Center's economy model frame collapsed. So how much does the internet weigh ?  And how many horsepower does it take to run it ?

While the original  DARPA net  was built like a tank to survive a thermonuclear holocaust , much post-modern net construction is utterly gossamer, all air and microwaves. But those channels lead  to boxes full of integrated circuits bearing labels that specify how much power they can handle, and solid state physics reveals what fraction of the silicon inside is abuzz with  electrons in motion , and how much sits idle. 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.  Silicon logic runs at three volts or so, and as the electron's mass is 9.1 x ten to the minus 31 grams, an Ampere is some ten to the eighteenth electrons a second, and the average chip runs at a Gigaherz , fairly 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 answer. The flip side of Moore's Law is that as etched circuitry shrinks , the transistors within the silicon pizzas chip foundries produce end up weighing next to nothing. State-of-the-art 100 nanometer transistors run  a million trillion to a ton . So as of today, cyberspace weighs less than two ounces.

It's hard to be  more exact ,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 .

Each person alive today has six watts of computational power at the disposal of their twenty watt brain . Third Worlders  have trouble accessing claim their six watt share of the worlds computing  horsepower , but  wired  Americans or Japanese expend  more energy on surfing than thinking.Yet the net has more than electrons inside-- a lot of its wire and fiber optic infrastructure is shared.. Some cables crackle with live TV bandwidth while others slumber-- the mix of traffic is unpredictable , and cable trunks branch like trees.

It is easy to put a tape measure to this shaggy creature's backbone, but the length of its hairy nervous system is hard to guess at . It may take 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 to optical cable link makes ultratransparent glass  fiber a staggering bargain at ten times its weight in gold--it does the work of a billion times its weight in copper. Its almost infinite bandwidth has pared the web down to run impressively well on ten nanograms of electrons per netizen, a figure optical computing may alter little , 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 a lot of force to horse those critical 50 grams of electrons around. This  message was brought to you by a few nanograms of electrons,  but when rush hour users race their silicon engines , fifty million horsepower is unleashed on the information superhighway. But hold your horses- that power bill ain't hay, and silicon  foundries are  devising ways to cut it down to size- a 68 watt server chip is in the works.

Copyright  2006 Russell Seitz all rights reserved .


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I came across this interesting post . It states interesting things like: cyberspace weighs less than [Read More]


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.

Agree with Chris - I've forgotten my information theory, but it would make more sense to weigh the data on the Net rather than the power running through the hardware that makes it up.

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