Thursday, August 25, 2011

Future's So Bright, We Gotta Wear Shades

In Sun Microsystems' first decade the company was growing exponentially and one of Scott McNealy's favorite slogans was "The Future's So Bright, We Gotta Wear Shades", adapted from a song by Timbuk 3. McNealy missed the ironic intent of the song, but the slogan was appropriate. Exponential growth continued most of the way through the company's second decade. Eventually, however, growth stopped.

It is always easy to believe that exponential growth will continue indefinitely, but it won't. It can't. There are always resource or other constraints that, at best, cause it to flatten. More likely, the growth will overshoot and collapse, as Sun's did. This problem is common to all exponential growth; a wonderful illustration is this post by Prof. Tom Murphy of UCSD:
U.S. energy use since 1650 shows a remarkably steady growth trajectory, characterized by an annual growth rate of 2.9%
...
For a matter of convenience, we lower the energy growth rate from 2.9% to 2.3% per year so that we see a factor of ten increase every 100 years. We start the clock today, with a global rate of energy use of 12 terawatts (meaning that the average world citizen has a 2,000 W share of the total pie).
...
No matter what the technology, a sustained 2.3% energy growth rate would require us to produce as much energy as the entire sun within 1400 years. A word of warning: that power plant is going to run a little warm. Thermodynamics require that if we generated sun-comparable power on Earth, the surface of the Earth—being smaller than that of the sun—would have to be hotter than the surface of the sun!
Views of the future for digital preservation are formed by two exponential growth projections; Moore's Law, projecting that density of transistors on a chip will increase exponentially, and Kryder's Law, projecting that the density of bits in storage will increase exponentially. Thus we plan on the basis that future costs of processing and storage will be much less than current costs.

An accessible explanation of the troubles Moore's Law is encountering is in Rik Myslewski's report for The Register on Simon Segars' keynote at the Hot Chips conference. Segars is employee #16 and head of the Physical IP division at ARM.
"Silicon scaling has been great." Segars reminisces. "We've gotten huge gains in power, performance, and area, but it's going to end somewhere, and that's going to affect how we do design and how we run our businesses, so my advice to you is get ready for that.

"It's coming sooner than a lot of people want to recognize."
I've been warning that we're likely to fall behind the Kryder's Law curve for some time, because the transition to the next disk drive technology is proving harder than expected and because the advantages of solid state storage come with higher costs. One thing I failed to anticipate is:
Multiple manufacturers in the IT industry have been keeping a wary eye on China's decision to cut back on rare earth exports and the impact it may have on component prices. An article from DigiTimes suggests consumers will see that decision hit the hard drive industry this year, with HDD prices trending upwards an estimated 5-10 percent depending on capacity.
This isn't likely to be as significant a factor as the others, but it is yet another straw in the wind.

3 comments:

David. said...

The very wonderful Bunnie Huang has a fascinating blog post on the topic of the slowing of Moore's Law and its implications. It has obvious similarities with the slowing of Kryder's Law and its implications.

Hat tip /.

Don Hopkins said...

The future's so bright, we've got to wear rose colored glasses! ;)

Don Hopkins said...

The future's so bright, we gotta wear rose colored glasses! ;)