September 2000

For those of us who pay attention to the trends, some recent headlines were a little "shocking" (pun intended).

"California Issues Stage One Power Alert"
"Businesses Face Possibility of Rolling Blackouts"
"Record Consumption of Electric Power"

Headlines like these were found on the Internet and in various newspapers and periodicals. A number of them appeared in the Drudge Report. While electric power demand has been unusually high in the U.S. due to record heat this summer, there are other factors at work which make the current power demands part of a long-term, structural problem with the supply-demand relationship for electricity. One of the unrecognized but primary causes for the frequent power shortages is the personal computer.

One federal report claims that the percentage of U.S. power consumed by PCs has risen from 1 percent in 1992 to 13 percent in 1999. During this period, PC usage rose from approximately 25 to 50 percent in U.S. homes. Also, CPU power rose significantly. The real question here is just why did the overall power consumption rise by a factor of 13 while the usage roughly doubled. And that brings us to the crux of the matter: there is a subtle yet pervasive belief among programmers that memory, processor, and storage space are unlimited resources which have zero physical cost.

Nowhere is that misconception more pronounced than at Microsoft. The most bloated, slow, and power-hungry operating systems and applications consistently spring forth from the bowels of Microsoft's compound in the Northwest. Efficiency, tight code, and low power consumption are non-factors in the MS design process. Instead, it's feature after feature, option after option, kludge after kludge, with little or no effort devoted to optimization or code cleanup. Back in the "bad old days," when RAM and processor speed were expensive and in short supply, programmers cleaned and debugged their code out of necessity. But in the present "potlatch" era of SUV-style programs, guzzling electricity is no more of a perceived "sin" than wasting auto fuel.

While Microsoft's monopoly makes this situation even worse -- as superior, efficient solutions like OS/2 Warp and Linux continue to occupy a "marginalized" position -- the situation on the server is even more grave. Unlike home PCs and cheap office units, which are intended for limited loads, and unlike the more-efficient portable units, which are driven by the needs of lightness and long battery life, it is network servers that seem most of all to have a "blank check" to consume gargantuan amounts of electricity. Worst of all, Microsoft's Neanderthal networking architecture leads to the use of "server farms," or banks of dozens or even hundreds of PCs that could easily be replaced by a half-dozen OS/2 or Linux boxes, or maybe just a dozen Novell units.

Thus, not only do individual PCs have power management problems when running the obese Microsoft operating systems, but the very nature of poor scalability and necessary redundancy lead directly to a huge overhead of power not just for the PCs and servers, but for the extra real estate and environmental cooling caused by the resultant excess heat generation. We could even generalize this excess power demand to include the thermal effects of needing 3x to 10x the number of support personnel for keeping Windows systems barely alive or in recovery. And then there's the issue of fancy monitors to take advantage of all the "cool stuff" that Microsoft seems to think is part of the required feature set for a backroom server....

Meanwhile, there are those of us who stay away from bulky, poorly-designed ATX power supplies and power-hungry Pentium II and PIII systems. We use reliable, time-tested AT supplies with our highly efficient PCs that don't need a constant treadmill of "upgrades" just to keep up with the lost performance caused by ever-more-decadent software regimes. As the Quote of the Month shows, many designers are compelled to cut corners and ruin the reliability of PC hardware under the strain of thermally-challenged products. Now Intel is producing the Pentium 4, which requires a nearly ONE POUND heatsink unit with a new power supply design to keep up with the P4's greedy power demands. So much for "current" technologies (yes, pun intended).

Sooner or later, a high price must be paid for all of this "heat pollution" and the extreme demand these systems place on the power grid. The wise choice for Microsoft would be to modularize their OS products and streamline their applications, but that would allow people to have greater freedom of choice -- not an ideal situation when they're struggling to maintain their monopoly status. Therefore, if Microsoft refuses to make wise choices, then it is up to us computer users to smarten up our peers, our acquaintances, and our bosses, while it is still in our "power" to do so. (Yes, pun intended!)

It is so often the creeping little issues that go unnoticed, that end up bringing great enterprises -- and great countries -- down to their knees.


See this article for one example of bogus power consumption control mechanisms hiding the problem:

Most recent revision: September 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.