As the Internet of Things expands, with everything from thermostats to cameras to cars plugging into the net, so does the need for machines that can handle those connections. The data traveling to and from all those thermostats, cameras, and cars, you see, must flow through the massive data centers operated by the likes of Google, Apple, and Facebook.
The worry is that powering all this extra hardware will require exponentially larger amounts of electricity—not to mention all the money and space spent on the hardware itself. But Urs Hölzle says this won’t be the problem it may seem. Hölzle is the man who oversees Google’s worldwide network of data centers, and he believes that efficiencies brought by devices such as Internet-connected thermostats, lighting systems, and self-driving cars will balance out the extra power needed to drive our computing centers.
“I’m pretty confident that the Internet of Things is going to have net negative power consumption,” Hölzle said during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “If you control lights, heat, and cooling in a smarter ways, that’s really substantial.” Even self-driving cars, he says, will push us towards lower power consumption. “You’ll have fewer cars on the road, fewer parking lots, less congestion, because every car is a potential carpool.” In other words, he believes we’ll use self-driving cars in much the same way we use Uber today, calling one whenever we need one.
There are so many Internet of Things devices—such as thermostats—move relatively little data over the network. And as time goes on, our data centers are juggling data with greater efficiency. Over the past decade, Google has streamlined its own operation, designing its own data centers, its own computer servers, and its own networking gear—and the results are enormous.
Compared with five years ago, Hölzle says, Google’s data center servers can now generate three and a half times more computing power with the same amount of money and the same amount of electrical power. These gains can be credited in part to Moore’s Law, the tech tenet that says the computing power in a computer chip will double every 18 months. But it’s also the result, he says, of far more efficient machines, cooling systems, and electrical systems.
Hölzle acknowledges that his prediction comes with a caveat: the proliferation of online cameras—which send so much data across the network—may cause a steep rise in power consumption across the world’s data centers. “Video is the one exception,” he said on Tuesday. And Jason Mars, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan who specializes in data center technologies, knocks Hölzle’s thesis down another peg.
Internet of Things devices may improve power efficiency in theory, Mars says, but it’s unclear how well they will actually work—or whether we humans will use them as a effectively as we should. “I’m not going to hold my breath on how effective future products will be at reducing the power consumption of society to the point of being ‘net negative’ relative to data centers,” he says.