Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Real Cost of Search Engines

Search Engines's Dirty Secret06 April 2010 by James Clarage

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HOW much does a web search cost? You don't pay up front, but there are costs nevertheless, and they are not just measured in dollars.

The term search "engine" is apt. Searches are powered by millions of computers packed into warehouses, all wired together to function as a single system. Like any system, it obeys the laws of thermodynamics, and therefore wastes energy.

The first law says it takes energy to do work, even if that work is only to move electrons across silicon wafers. The second law says that no engine is perfect, meaning some of the input gets lost as heat. This is the entropy, or disorder, arising from your search.

A successful results page brings clarity and order to your corner of the universe, but down in the server farms things get messy. Thermal motion of silicon atoms agitates air molecules behind the CPU racks, heating them up. More energy must be fed in to power the computer fans and air-conditioning units needed to remove this heat from the warehouses.

Whatever you search for, it boils down to the same cycle: move atoms, then cool atoms. Both these steps consume energy. How much? Let's run through some numbers, using the leading search engine as our guide. There's lots more. Read it here.


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