IT Industrys Biggest Power Struggle

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2002-09-30 Print this article Print

When someone wants to get my attention, "low power" is a good phrase to use.

When someone wants to get my attention, "low power" is a good phrase to use. With a big-enough engine, you can make a barn door fly, but thats not an approach that leads to viable air transportation.

Likewise for IT developers, who sometimes seem to forget that you have to be an electrical engineer—not just a computer scientist—to make this stuff work, whether were talking about massive server farms or leading-edge portable devices.

Ever since James Watt clocked the force and speed achieved by horses powering rotary mills, weve had units of measurement for the delivery of energy over time. If you want to backlight a flat-panel screen or send a radio signal thats strong enough to be detected a mile away without a NASA-size dish antenna, you have to achieve certain numbers: watt-hours stored in a given volume, peak current delivered at required voltage and so on.

If the system is not 100 percent efficient, the difference will come out as heat. There has to be some mechanism, involving some combination of mass and size and additional energy consumption, for dumping that heat over-board without unacceptable noise or other discomfort to the user of the device.

But the entertainment industry encourages users to expect IT to do whats literally impossible. Many kinds of fiction rely on leading-edge gadgets, sometimes as minor props, sometimes as crucial plot devices; Im willing to suspend disbelief if all Im asked to accept is continued improvement in software or continued progress in miniaturization. I have trouble, though, when storytellers dont seem to understand conservation of energy.

When James Bonds watch shoots out an improbably thin cable that wraps around a conveniently placed steel beam, Im willing to believe that the cable could be strong enough to hold his weight. Spider silk, and all that—its possible. But when he pushes a button, and the watch itself winches him out of that missile silo, I want to know what kind of battery hes using—and why I cant get that chemistry in a size that fits my digital camera.

If you cant talk about energy, dont try to talk about tomorrows IT.

Tell me what gets you energized at
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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