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A De-centralized Cloud Could Cushion the Impact of IoT on ICT

Jaafar Elmirghani's picture
Professor University of Leeds

 Jaafar Elmirghani, Co-Chair, IEEE Green ICT Initiative, Director of the Institute of Integrated Information Systems and Professor of Communication Networks and Systems, School of Electronic and...

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The emerging Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to have a massive impact on information and communications technology (ICT) in two ways.

First, IoT is expected to drive huge increases in sensors and devices - estimates range from 50 billion to 100 billion - and that could drive up the sector's energy use and carbon footprint and need for network and processing capacity. That drives down both ICT's and IoT's sustainability.

Secondly, however, the application of ICT via IoT in myriad domains - healthcare, transportation, smart cities - will drive down the carbon footprints of those domains by a factor approximately 10x ICT's own carbon footprint as predicted by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).

Still, we need to focus on greening ICT itself, which currently has its own unsustainable carbon footprint.

In the simplest terms, those of us involved in greening ICT divide the challenge roughly into two parts. There are the devices and sensors, mostly automated but many in human hands, at the edge of the network, and then there are the data networks and cloud-based processing at the heart of much of ICT.

In my first blog in this space, "How the Internet of Things Impacts ICT and Green ICT Efforts," [LINK] I addressed the network and processing side of the issue. Now let's consider the end devices and sensors and how processing at the IoT network's edge could decentralize the cloud and improve the sustainability of ICT in the service of IoT.   

One obvious improvement - a tactic, if you will - is to make end devices and sensors more energy efficient and even self-sustaining through energy harvesting. More strategically, we can take at least two other, related approaches.

First, it is not necessary to transmit across data networks all the measurements and data gathering by end devices and sensors. We can gain massive efficiencies if we limit or eliminate data streams that, say, consistently report static data and only allow anomalous or event-driven data to transit the network. For instance, if a person wearing a heart monitor connected to IoT remains healthy, we do not need a constant stream of heart monitor data. If that person's heart rate changes in a way that needs attention, then that anomalous or event-driven data would transit the network to reach the attention of a physician.

Similarly, if we embed processing capabilities in end devices and sensors that are appropriate to the data being collected, we can also vastly reduce the amount of data transiting the network for centralized processing. This strategy too would vastly cut the need for network and processing capacity and related energy needs and carbon footprint.

Taking that idea one step further, localized processing could take place in a network of nodes, essentially creating a decentralized cloud that could limit the scale of data centers - and their energy needs and carbon footprints - that currently comprise the centralized cloud. Advances in data compression techniques and algorithms for intelligence in end devices and sensors will be part of such efforts. A side benefit is that localized processing will reduce latency and increase reliability.

This is just an example of the thinking that's driving innovation in the IEEE Green ICT initiative's work. But three forces outside of technical innovation will be critical to a successful outcome in the endeavor to make ICT and IoT sustainable: raising awareness of the issues, creating market incentives for the adoption of sustainable practices and informing public policies that encourage solutions.

In terms of economics and market forces, it is already clear to enterprises generally and cloud vendors in particular that ICT and IoT are driving up energy costs and expanding carbon footprints. The notion of the triple bottom line - an accounting concept that focuses on the social, environmental and financial impacts of an enterprise's actions - is proving attractive to investors and, thus, to enterprises themselves. The massive energy needs of a centralized cloud is also raising awareness and driving solutions among cloud vendors.

The Green ICT initiative hosts its inaugural Greening through ICT Summit (GtICT) on 25 May 2017 in Paris. This event will be co-located with the IEEE International Conference on Communications, 21-25 May 2017. The latter will also feature a symposium focused on Green Communication Networks and Systems, with an emphasis on domain-specific solutions, including greening ICT.

Between now and then, IEEE will be hosting conferences designed to raise awareness, support the exchange of ideas and contribute to ensuring that everyone in the ICT and IoT domains are making pervasive efforts across-the-board to make these future-oriented domains sustainable. If you work in these areas, please join us at any or all of the following conferences:

By Jaafar Elmirghani, Co-Chair, IEEE Green ICT Initiative, Director of the Institute of Integrated Information Systems and Professor of Communication Networks and Systems, School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, University of Leeds, UK

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