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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the March 2001 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses the energy debacle during the winter of 2000 in the West…

Doom, Gloom & Darkness All ’Round

I’m just now heading to Boulder, seat of the US data storage industry and domestic home to Sony’s SACD effort, in an attempt to better understand some of the new production tools with which my clients and I work. I’m traveling from LA, that Seacoast of Iowa, as the basin was called long ago due to all the Midwest transplants. My visit to La La Land was not specifically targeted at Trader Vic’s, but a stop there certainly didn’t hurt. No, it was the Surround 2001 show, a somewhat choppy affair combining useful information with a healthy dose of trade show fluff. Maybe it’s time to combine all “surround” shows into one cooperative, multichannel lovefest…but that would make too much sense.

Anyway, I come to you today not to lament the state of trade shows but to make you aware of a trend both serious and fundamental to our work. And that is, in a word, power. Or lack thereof…For several days in a row last year, California almost ran out of juice. Juice as in AC electricity. Strange but true. Imagine if all of the special venue rides around the Golden State had to temporarily close due to insufficient power reserves for critical industries. No more rockin’ roller coasters, no more Iwerks shakers.

From the country that brought you manifest destiny and cultivated corporate greed comes Energy Crunch II, A New Beginning. California, predicting the future of technology and entertainment, is the bellwether for the rest of our fragmented country. The audio community lives at the intersection of those two industries, and so the trend of cheap, reliable power becoming costly and unpredictable should be alarming to all of us.

It all started with deregulation, as my ambitious former governor decided that the consumer would benefit from relaxing the strict controls that had been in place for many a year. Wouldn’t have hurt his positioning with consumers for a Presidential bid either if things hadn’t gone horribly wrong. Now you may wonder how one makes power a commodity, what with the electrons always flowing around on the grid with nary a care as to who generates or dissipates. No one can guarantee that a particular source will deliver their electrons to a particular consumer’s home, since them little buggers have a mind of their own. What made it possible was, of course, computers: Computer management of suppliers and consumers, which brings me to my point. The audio industry cannot exist without electricity. These days, audio production cannot exist without computers either and those brainy little chips require a reliable connection to the mains.

Let’s look at the trends: first off, e–commerce is at an all time high, though there has been some heavy doses of reality delivered to the vulture capitalists of late. This means more server farms and data centers sucking the headroom out of the grid. When I’m not writing this doggerel, I’m working along side a small cadre of tech–ninjas, providing professional services to enterprise computing vendors and end users. We’re currently helping one customer with a new data center in the Northeast and we’ve found that the local utility cannot supply sufficient electrical power for our project. So, we’re makin’ our own, designing in cogeneration on–site to make up the shortfall! In fact, many experts believe that there isn’t enough capacity available for all of the computer–based stuff that’s on the drawing boards. Meanwhile, power utilities have been slow to build new generators due to what was predicted to be slow long term economic growth. They’ve also been holding off, waiting to see how California’s deregulation progressed. In addition, nuclear isn’t the darling of power professionals that it once was and fossil fuels are costly all ’round. All the while, prices for natural gas, which supplies 20% of our nation’s energy needs, are three times what they were last year, resulting in higher electricity cost in the West and probably elsewhere. These aggregate shortfalls and spiraling costs will limit the growth of our high tech world and magnify the economy’s slowdown in general.

Yet there are small glimmers of hope. In the All That Is Old Is New Again department: Think about all of the wall warts and power supplies that are trickling away right now in your home and office, even when the “power” switch is off. Worldwide, that’s a goodly chunk of electricity being used only to store data in volatile memory. Those gray beards in the audience may remember a time when RAM was magnetic and nonvolatile, needing no power supply to retain its contents. So called magnetic core memory is still used in hardened environments, such as military applications and the space shuttle. Well, the era of mag RAM may just experience a renaissance with IBM’s announcement of MRAM, a new memory technology with the potential to store more information, access it faster and use less power. Sandip Tiwari, manager of exploratory memory and device modeling at IBM’s Watson Research Center notes that “(Such devices) have the advantage that they don’t leak, like capacitors, and so don’t need to be refreshed periodically, saving a lot of additional circuitry.” Don’t forget power…IBM and Infineon Technologies AG, a Munich-based memory chip manufacturer, have announced plans to move MRAM into commercial production.

While Quest and Level 3 are gleefully expanding the global IP infrastructure, resources needed to power it are in crisis. Gotta love progress. Me thinks it’s time to invest in a UPS and power conditioner. That’s all for this month so, I bid you a fond farewell from 40,000 feet and beseech you to consider responsible resource use. Oh yeah, turn the lights off when you’re done.

Bio

OMas, a guy steeped in the folkways of audio arcana, thinks core memory should be framed and hung as art. To voice your own opinions on science, aesthetics and the inexorable march of electrons in a bulk conductor, drop a line to bitstream at seneschal.net.