Green:Net: Here's What We Learned About IT

Google's Bill Weihl

Advances in computing and communications are changing the world for the better, and enabling huge changes in the way we develop new materials and derive energy. But in the rush to bring innovation to other areas of the economy those providing the computation and bandwidth must become more efficient.

That was the message of several of the speakers at our annual Green:Net conference yesterday in San Francisco. The event brought investors, scientists and startups in the greentech field together to talk about everything from the smart grid to synthetic biologics. But the base of much of the current crop of green innovation has been driven by faster processors, cloud computing and networks that can reliably deliver information from one part of the electric grid to the other.

A panel on the smart grid drew parallels between the emerging networks aimed at managing electricity consumption and those for cellular phones. Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, also compared the investment opportunities that derived from disrupting the telecommunications network of the late ’90s to the current opportunities to change the economics in the energy and materials sciences space. Another IT investor, Steve Jurvetson of DFJ, explained how the history of innovation in information technology is translating into the development of greentech and even the next generation of computing, using synthetic biologics.

However for many of GigaOM’s readers, the chat that had the most potential was Bill Weihl, Google’s (s goog) green energy czar, who talked about making data centers more efficient. I thought his talk focused too much on the obvious (keep your hot and cold aisles contained, raise your temperature inside the data center and use alternatives to air conditioning,) but in chatting with him later I heard a little bit more on the importance of optimizing your code for better performance (Facebook has done this with its HipHop compiler) and the economics of using alternatives to x86-based servers inside the data center. Weihl told me that it’s still hard to beat x86-based servers for general purpose computing, even with the larger potential power draw of that type of chip. However, he’s interested in the idea of energy proportional computing (GigaOM Pro sub req’d), by which the entire system idles when it’s not in use, as opposed to merely the processor.

Overall, the day illustrated all the good that has so far come from the information technology industry, and how much those industries are contributing our current gluttony for energy. More than anything it was a reminder that innovation doesn’t stop at information technology, but will extend to biology, chemicals and even agriculture — all enabled by the computing power that’s been developed in the past few years alone.