Tag Archives: ibm

It Is Time for Renewable Energy

The high prices of oil in the seventies stimulated the research for alternative sources of energy. Nuclear power plants emerged as a very cost-effective energy source, though always controversial. Windmills and solar plants were in their infancy and too inefficient, while hydroelectric plants, apart from the high environmental impact, only can cope with a small percentage of the energy demand. In the eighties and nineties oil prices went down, and with cheap oil the progress on renewable energies slowed down.

Now, the high oil prices have returned driven by the increasing demand for energy in the developing world (specially China and India). The high price is making economically viable to extract oil from other sources, such as tar sands or liquefied coal. This means oil reserves will still last for a while, but oil will remain expensive.

Add the concerns on global warming, and this time renewable energies are here to stay. Many governments in developed countries are considering to tax emissions of CO2. This tax on coal, oil and gas power plants, with high oil prices, would start making renewable energies a cheaper alternative. It is what Google.org calls RE<C, or renewable energies cheaper than coal. Google’s initiative will focus on areas such as solar thermal, wind, and geothermal, that promise utility scale energy production.

Solar technologies are one of the most promising option to power the planet cleanly. New thin-film photovoltaics with mixtures of new materials (cadmium telluride or CIGS) are bringing costs down and built on top of steel and crsital, the cells can be part of the roof structure of buildings or vehicles. The efficiency of this new solar cells is lower than bulk silicon cells, but the efficiency is improving at a pace close to Moore’s law in computers, with big names, as IBM, getting involved. With the promise of nanotechnology bringing new techniques and materials, like carbon nanotubes, expect an efficiency boost in the coming years.

If Internet made the network decentralized, solar cells will also make power generation a distributed process in 20 years.

Related reading:
Another silicon valley? From The Economist print edition Jun 19th 2008

IBM Supercomputer Sets Record, or rather not?

With a total of 116,640 processor cores, including AMD Opteron processors as well as 12,960 IBM Cell processors similar to those created for the PlayStation 3, IBM has broken the one petaflop mark with the new Supercomputer commissioned by the American military administration. The $133 million machine*, called Roadrunner, will be used to solve complex issues related to nuclear weapons, and to address problems like the climate change.

While a remarkable achievement, Brough Turner pointed out in his blog a few weeks ago that Google might have surpassed the petaflop mark unnoticed. The Google Cluster is built on the principle of extensive parallelization with fault-tolerance managed by software. The index is partitioned over several servers, so that a single search query is processed in parallel by many processors, minimizing the overall response time for a search. A paper describing Google Cluster Architecture (dated 2003, but worth reading), underlines how Google selects commodity class PCs, as they provide the best performace/cost ratio, without the need of expensive hardware reliability as fault-tolerance is handled by software. Google is estimated to currently have more than 500.000 servers distributed across their data centers. Assuming a performance of 14.7 gigaflops for an AMD Athlon X2 4600 processor (a good performance/cost ratio two years ago), Google platform must be handling today more than 7 petaflops!!** 

At a $500 cost per PC, Google would have spent $250 million. Still cheap comparable to IBM price for one seventh of the capacity.

Whether record or not, IBM has taken 11 years to improve their supercomputer performance a thousandfold. As the performance growth is not linear but exponential, the next thousandfold improvement, taking us to exaflops, should be expected sooner than 8 years from now. Singularity might not be that far after all.

Reference: NYT’s Military Supercomputer Sets Record

* less than $140 million Real Madrid is claimed to be ready to pay for Cristiano Ronaldo

** I have used a less powerful processor than Brough, in the assumption that a Quad Core in end of 2006 were less cost effective than an AMD dual core.


The End of Microsoft Era?

So The New York Times predicts in The Computer Industry Comes With Built-In Term Limits.

The premise is that no company is able to dominate the Computer Industry spanning two technological eras. Microsoft has reigned on the PC era, as IBM did during the mainframe times. When Microsoft software monopolized personal computers in the 90s, IBM tried to catch up with Lotus acquisition to no avail.

An analogy of why even if Microsoft acquired Yahoo, chances are that Google would still dominate the Internet Era, where applications run in a browser hosted in the cloud, and the OS matter less and less.

I would add that Microsoft did beat IBM (and to some extent Apple) during the PC era based on the “openness” of Microsoft software compared to IBM OS/2 or even Mac. While Microsoft software did run on any manufacturer’s PC hardware, OS/2 was associated to proprietary IBM PS/2. IBM in the late 80s was the almighty computing company trying to impose proprietary solutions, compared to challenger Microsoft open to any HW and to thousands of developers.

In other words, Microsoft represented towards IBM in 80s and 90s, the same openness promise that Linux and Open Source represent towards Microsoft today.

Some interesting data about Microsoft on-line business (MSN) in NYT article:

  • MSN last profitable year was FY 2005 with $402m earnings, just before the MSN dial-up business was killed by broadband (as with AOL)
  • MSN loss was $74m in 2006, $732m in 2007 and $745m in the first 3 quarters of FY 2008
  • Google profits were $1.5bn in 2005, $3bn in 2006 and $4.2bn in 2007
  • MSN represents only 5% of Microsoft total revenue
  • In the last two years Google share of searches in US went from 58% to 68%. MSN went from 13% to 6%

Does Microsoft need to buy Yahoo? Yes. Will that be enough?