Two go mad in Silicon Valley...
Our trip to California turned out to be quite nostalgic. For me, it was a throw back to my days as a cub reporter on Computer Weekly in the late 1980s, when we still banged out our copy on typewriters. For Newsnight producer, Ming Tsang, it was a mini refresher course in the history of computing. Read his thoughts here.
We set out to make a film about the huge amount of energy used by the giant computers that drive the Internet, and our data-obsessed lives. Everything we do which requires tapping into a keyboard, uses one of these computers, called servers. They're kept in enormous climate-controlled warehouses known as data centres, or "server farms" to geeks and governments. And these are getting so big, and using so much energy, that people are starting to take note.
In fact, for every unit of energy a server uses to actually do some computing, it takes an equivalent amount of energy to cool it down again. US Government statistics show that data centres now use as much energy as the whole of the car manufacturing industry. Given that the US alone builds around 10 million cars a year, that's an awful lot of energy. And it looks even worse if you stare into the future.
The latest industry figures suggest that by 2020, the carbon emissions produced in generating energy for the Internet will be the equivalent of those produced by the airline industry. These figures assume that neither business makes much progress in cutting emissions, so we set out to ask some of the computer industry's leading players how the industry plans to use less energy, or to switch to cleaner, less polluting sources.
We met Three Wise Men - or at least Three Green Tsars - each at a computer company that represents a grand era of computing. In their time, each of these companies has been, if not the biggest, then the most influential on the scene. First IBM, which created a commercial market in supercomputing in the 1950s and 60s. We were invited to the company's Silicon Valley research labs, to see the biggest data centre in the world. Well, it was when it was built, in 1980. Nowadays, it's just average-sized. IBM's wise man told us about the company's plans for virtualisation and "cloud computing" to cut the energy it uses.
Next stop, Cisco, just down the road. In the 1990s, it was Cisco that built the routers that run the Internet. The Green Tsar here took us into one of the company's server development labs - a complete contrast to the neat, tidy functionality of the IBM server room. Here we saw in action the research that's creating coming generations of the Internet - web 2.0 and beyond.
And despite the best efforts by Cisco's green team to use tricks that cut the energy used by the Internet, it persists in growing. After all, a few years ago there was no BBC iPlayer or YouTube. Now, both of these video-on-demand services need powerful, energy-hungry servers to stay on air.
So, to see how Internet companies view the problem, we met our third company, the owner of YouTube, Google. If you're reading this online, I assume you've heard of Google. Not only is Google rich and powerful, but it has a stated aim of helping to protect the environment. Oh, and it's famous too as a cool place to work. So it was with some anticipation that we approached Google's mission control, "Googleplex".
Google's Green Tsar took us up onto the solar rooftop of its Mountain View headquarters. Strange to think that under our feet could well be some of the rooms full of servers that Google's PR team didn't want us to film - so closely guarded are the secrets in those rooms, as are the locations. The secrecy is aimed partly at protecting data that belongs to Google's customers', and partly at protecting Google itself...
As for the environment, we'd heard all about Google's plan to create "energy cheaper than coal". This is apparently to be a gift to the world, as well as helping to ease Google's corporate guilt over the carbon emissions it creates as it uses more and more energy to drive ever bigger data centres.
But apart from a few minor investments in alternative power sources, Google couldn't tell us a great deal about its approach to cutting energy consumption, and definitely wouldn't tell us how much energy it uses at the moment. It's a lot. Think how many searches you've carried out, and how many video clips you've watched on the net today. And with its latest mission statement to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful", this can only grow. Yet Google seemed surprisingly reluctant to spell out to us how it plans to polish up its Green credentials.
Finally, we heard from the "Green Grid" industry body set up by computer manufacturers to curb the Internet's energy appetite. But in spite of the name, Green Grid wasn't formed wholly out of eco-concern. Selling more boxes and avoiding government regulation had something to do with it too.