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A postcard from SunLIVE07

Time for the green revolution?

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Sun's jamboree was held in the magnificent Methodist Central Hall in London to the sound of the Beatles' Revolution (Evolution, plus Innovation equals.... geddit?).

The main theme was "going green" - now there's a surprise, but Sun actually has a good story here, to my mind.

A 4 watt desktop device lasting some 20 years before replacement, driven from a virtualised server running on a physical processor achieving some 70 per cent utilisation, shouldn't find it hard to have a lower carbon footprint than the average Wintel desktop/server setup with all the computers running at around 20 per cent utilisation or worse (much worse for a PC left on all the time and only used occasionally), and being discarded after a couple of years when a new OS comes out.

Of course, there's a bit more to it than that when you dig down into the detail (although Sun also claims to recycle some 95 per cent of its technology at end-of-life). And Wintel PCs can be engineered to be more energy efficient.

But why work so hard when Sun (and other) "thin client" models are inherently less wasteful? And, carbon footprint aside, the heat from computer technology and getting rid of it with air conditioning is a major overhead for large installations today – in fact, according to Dan Pritchett (technical fellow, eBay Inc, speaking at the QCon London conference across the road), "power and cooling are now the primary constraint to growth" at this scale of computing, simply because the American electricity grid often has trouble in supplying, in one place, the power needed by the largest data centres today. It was never designed with single buildings using that much power in mind.

Sun brought in, on video, Jonathon Porritt (programme director of Forum for the Future and chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission) to underline the need for energy efficiency (which he did well, as you'd expect – avoiding physical travel was a nice touch); and, in person, its own James Gosling (aka. The Father of Java) to establish its engineering credentials, and BBC broadcaster Andrew Marr for "entertainment".

Gosling (who, alone of the presenters, got to wear a t-shirt) gave us his views on Web 2.0, another of SunLIVE's themes – as he said, this was probably going to be "an exercise in cynicism". He pointed out that it's mostly just another stage in the rise of ubiquitous computing and that most new developments in computing simply add to what came before, instead of replacing it. He also quoted Tim Berners-Lee: "I think Web 2.0 is a piece of jargon. No one really knows what it means."

However, more positively, he decided that Web 2.0 was a lifestyle thing where the customer was an active part of the system in a "community", instead of a "lab rat pressing buttons" - a YouTube or Flickr experience, instead of an NHS Direct one.

"I'm a technology guy, I just like it to make it work, the communities are a surprise to me; I'd never have expected YouTube," he said. Web 2.0 is also, in Gosling's view, a development model, for communal development. And he finished up with his favourite retake on the Java tag: "Java - learn once, work anywhere."

Marr gave us an interesting insight into the mind of politicians with regards to Web 2.0 – they think it's a wonderful means of social control (back to 1945 and ID cards), he says; while the rest of us think it's a driver for openness and revolution. We can't both be right – and so far, web technology has been a bit of a disaster for the government (think leaked emails and failed IT projects).

Marr also demonstrated neatly that the BBC can, when it wants to, employ people who understand the implications of IT without being computer hobbyists.

Marr and Gosling then took part in a discussion of what Web 2.0 really meant – according to Gosling again, it's more about what people want than what organisations want them to want. Marr pointed out that there was a conflict between the equally plausible demands of privacy and efficiency. For instance, he said, there were people who thought that giving rateable value assessors with video cameras blanket right-of-entry to your home for valuation purposes was a good idea (current valuations are far from fair or consistent). And that putting the valuations and supporting photos online, and then selling the data to insurance assessors and the like, would be an efficient way to recover costs and reduce various frauds... Not government policy – yet – I hasten to add (council tax revaluation/reform has been postponed anyway); but the sort of thing we need to keep an eye on (the mere possibility certainly horrified Gosling) even if we are Web 2.0 enthusiasts!

Obviously, there was a lot more in the conference than I'm covering here – I was particularly interested in the sessions on MiFID that will probably be reflected in Reg Dev articles in time – and there were also a couple of follow-up "Tech days". In summary, I think everyone had a good, and informative, time; and there was plenty of useful networking going on. ®

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