Getting serious about the Internet and energy

By on 27 Oct 2022

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The Colibri is a genus of hummingbird. Image: Pixabay.

Understanding the energy burdens of the modern Internet, and the implications of those burdens, was a strong theme at IETF 114 in Philadelphia. This is something we have covered a little on the APNIC Blog: I previously wrote about The potential impact of climate change on data services, and Tobias Fiebig has written 13 propositions on an Internet for a burning world.

At the Operations and Management Area Working Group (OPSAWG) session, three drafts were discussed in two presentations, directly relating to these questions.

Toerless Eckert gave an overview of the problem space and previous approaches to the problem in his draft What has the IETF ever done for energy? Alex Clemm presented two drafts in a talk on Management and Operations for Green Networking.

There was a lively floor discussion. Some felt the IETF should ‘stick to its knitting’ and take a narrow view of the burdens of energy as they relate to protocols, encryption, and routing. Others want a maximal approach, with a strong signal of intent to provide better metrics and data models that expose the energy cost of data transmission in all ways.

Subsequently, on the IETF mailing list, there has been continuing discussion and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) has announced three half-day sessions to be held from December 2022 to discuss the environmental impact of Internet applications and systems. The workshop is inviting discussion paper submissions.

A 2013 draft on A Framework and Requirements for Energy-Aware Control Planes has been resubmitted and is now in its fourth iteration.

I take all of this as a sign that the IETF is aware (but not necessarily close to consensus as to its scope) of a burden that unquestionably now exists in our problem space — how can the energy burden of the Internet be improved?

Our colleagues at the RIPE NCC have not been idle. Vesna Manojlovic gave a presentation at the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) meeting May Contain Hackers 2022, held in the Netherlands in July, while the IETF was in Philadelphia. Vesna spoke about taking an holistic approach to social engagement within the context of ‘limits’ for the health of the biosphere. Her presentation explored the topics raised by the LIMITS workshops, one of which was held earlier in June this year. Another talk at the CCC meeting was titled M̶a̶y̶ Will Contain Climate Change by Igor Nikolic, exploring the questions resilient hackers will face as climate change impacts supply chains.

Nobody should pretend that the world doesn’t face massive burdens of energy and sustainability costs in growing and operating the Internet at large. That there are drafts in the IETF process back to 2013 shows operators have known for some time that this problem requires thought. Perhaps now the human energy that operators can apply will progress, as the community explores ways to reduce the (non-human) electrical and cooling burdens the technology has brought.

Tobias Fiebig’s blog topic formed the basis of his keynote at APNIC 54. Discussion at the conference was high and I hope it stimulates commitment in the APNIC community to pick up its share of the work.

As one of the regions with significant growth ahead, and a majority of the world’s population in the APNIC footprint of Internet service delivery, the questions will be central to a sustainable global network.

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