Alcatel-Lucent has taken the moral and intellectual high ground in launching an initiative aimed at reducing the energy consumption of networks by a factor of a thousand – eventually.
Alcatel-Lucent announced its Green Touch consortium with much fanfare at a press conference in London. From the first few minutes it was clear that this was a heavyweight affair, delivered in the presence of both senior managers and top-level scientific researchers.
Unlike comparable announcements from competing vendors, this was not about a new green product or service. There were few specific promises, and no cheerful case studies showing how the vendor had helped its operator customers to reduce their energy consumption.
Rather, Alcatel-Lucent aims to establish a consortium that will manage a research program to deliver a radically new set of technologies on which to base communications networking.
The announcement was lent dignity by an explicit link to the theoretical work of Claude Shannon, giving Alcatel-Lucent the opportunity to remind us that it is the inheritor of the Bell Labs mantle. Shannon’s work underlies the initial research for Green Touch, in which a group of engineers and fundamental scientists within Alcatel-Lucent established the theoretical minimum energy consumption needed to provide current levels of network functionality and throughput.
In fact, Green Touch’s plan to improve energy consumption by a factor of a thousand marks it out, in its own terms, as an underachiever. The theoretical models suggest that a 10,000-fold improvement is possible, and Bell Labs head of research Gee Rittenhouse told the press conference that without the need to support wireless, energy consumption could reduce by a factor of a million.
The consortium already includes several major network operators, including China Mobile, AT&T, Portugal Telecom and Swisscom, and a host of research institutes and component manufacturers. These founder members will shape the direction of the research program and set out the rules that will govern the ownership and treatment of intellectual property rights. Other vendors, including competitors, are welcome to join, though presumably not as founders.
As a first step, the Green Touch consortium will define a five-year roadmap and reference architecture to structure the overall research efforts towards the new networking technologies.
This is intended to be a root and branch program, based on the explicit understanding that existing technologies, however optimized, cannot deliver the kinds of reductions in energy consumption that are needed. It’s also very much in the grand traditions of the telecoms industry, as the priority given to the reference model indicates; we can’t help thinking that Internet companies would take a very different approach, based on ad hoc and de facto standards and ‘permanent beta’.
Internet companies would probably plan for a snappier transition from fundamental research to products. The Green Touch initiative expects to deliver new fundamental technologies – though not necessarily products based on them, or even finalized industry standards – at the end of the five years.
Alcatel-Lucent argues that the strong benefits that these technologies offer will make for rapid adoption. While we applaud the sentiment, we can’t help thinking that this is a little naïve; standardization processes could delay implementation of unquestionably useful technologies for years.
If the consortium does not bring competing vendors inside the tent then this issue will be exacerbated because each will try to drive standards towards their own intellectual property assets.