Is the exponential growth of the internet sustainable ?

The internet is growing. I know that as far as obvious statements go, this one pretty much comes on top. However, when one charts its rate of growth, one can’t help but notice that it seems to be accelerating. For example, a graph showing the number of internet hosts displays a steep curve:

Internet hosts

So far this growth has been following a strict power law which is exponential in nature; as research has found that web traffic doubles every year, and this rate is set to continue at least for the next five years. Interestingly, internet growth rates correspond also with Moore’s Law, which describes yet another exponential growth, that of microprocessors. This is another obvious statement, as the internet needs hardware to run on, and the rate of growth can only be sustained by growth in processing power and data storage capabilities. However, one area that has not experienced similar growth is that of bandwidth as many countries are operating with outdated infrastructural backbones and transfer capabilities. I do not know if I can blame my ISP for this, but I have noticed that the internet is then becoming sluggish. In countries like the UK, ISPs are struggling to keep up with growing bandwidth demands from online gamers, P2P, Web 2.0 sites, and streaming services such as Last FM, BBC’s iPlayer, and Spotify.

So in order to meet the projected demand, two things need to happen. First, Moore’s Law has to keep in order to allow more processing and storage power, which seems still to be the case. Second, bandwidth infrastructure needs to be updated, but this costs money and resources that are hard to find in this financial environment.

There is another area of concern, and that is the ecological problems caused by the growing number of server farms needed to satisfy the growing demand for resources. While processing and storage power has gone up, so has the energy necessities to power the web, and also its carbon footprint. An interesting article in The Guardian explores this very issue; I was shocked to find that data centres in the United States account for 1.5% of the country’s total energy consumption. That is a lot of servers!

Regulatory challenge?

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