New research fellowship aims to turn ICT sustainability on its head

A server in a data centre © Dreamstime
Servers in a data centre

A Lancaster University computer scientist has been awarded a new fellowship to research an entirely new way of making large-scale computing systems more sustainable.

Dr Peter Garraghan, a Lecturer in Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications, has been awarded a £1 million fellowship by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), to research and develop a new computing system that could turn the relationship between computing and energy demand on its head.

The global energy demand, and associated carbon footprint, from computing is growing rapidly. It is forecast that by 2025, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) will consume a fifth of all electricity generated and will be responsible for around 5.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Forecasts show that by 2040 ICT systems will be responsible for more than 5.2 Gt of CO2 annually – which equates to more than half the emissions caused by transport.

This accelerating growth in energy and emissions is driven by ever increasing demand for digital services including the relatively new, but computationally-heavy, domains of Big Data and artificial intelligence. Tasks that require high levels of computation require higher amounts of energy.

Traditional thinking around the problem of ICT energy consumption has looked towards increased efficiency as a panacea. However, this has resulted in a major paradox where increasing efficiencies in ICT leads to increased demand for computing services, which in turn raises energy demand even further. This is known as ‘the rebound effect’.

Instead of pushing for further efficiencies that drive ever-growing energy demand, Dr Garraghan’s fellowship aims to unshackle ICT operation from this growth. He will do this by developing a solution centred around ICT systems that are able to automatically adapt how they run to account for a limited, and fluctuating, amount of renewable energy, or to operate within commercial or greenhouse gas emission targets.

His concept will see large ICT systems, such as data centres, that are able to dynamically reconfigure their components and how they operate in relation to changes in the amount of energy available. This ability to automatically, and dynamically, adapt to changing energy supply is increasingly important as we shift away from dirty but reliable fossil fuels towards renewables that provide energy intermittently depending on how sunny or windy it is.

If less energy is available, Dr Garraghan envisages a datacentre system would be able to automatically adjust its operation from its code, its hardware, and its cooling. Though this would lead to a temporary change in performance, Dr Garraghan believes it is a necessary trade-off if we are to achieve our climate-change targets.

He said: “For many decades, improving the efficiency of ICT has been seen as the primary means to make computers more ‘green’. However if we look around, we can see that in many ways it has resulted in the opposite effect. We consume more data than ever before, watch higher resolution videos, and own more device in the home. Even if we created the most perfectly energy-efficient computer, we would still see increased energy consumption due to greater demand and new technologies. We need to radically rethink, in engineering and society, the idea of sustainable technologies.”

This concept has not been possible until now. But thanks to recent breakthroughs in energy-efficient ICT resource management tools and machine learning, it is now possible to design large-scale systems that can autonomously adapt their operation to achieve specified emission targets.

Dr Garraghan, who is also part of Lancaster University's Data Science Institute, said: “Broadly speaking, there is tangible tension and feelings of powerlessness in public discourse on the tackling the problems of reducing emissions and its impact on the economy, and our standards of living. This project is a direct answer to this problem. I am proposing to go beyond forecasts and conceptual models, and engineer real ICT systems to embolden public belief that humanity can overcome these challenges.”

Dr Garraghan will assemble a team of researchers, working with external partners BT and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), to develop a proof of concept system and hopes his research will enable a rethink of how society uses, perceives and interacts with ICT systems.

Back to News