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The Evolution of Bipedal Locomotion & the Energetic Economics of Virtualization

By my own admission, this is a stream-of-consciousness, wacky, caffeine-inspired rant that came about while I was listening to a conference call.   It’s my ode to paleoanthropology and how we, the knuckledraggers of IT/Security, evolve.

My apologies to anyone who actually knows anything about or makes an honest living from science; I’ve quite possibly offended all of you with this post…

I came across this interesting article posted today on the ScienceDaily website which discusses a hypothesis by a University of Arizona professor, David Raichlen, who suggests that bipedalism, or walking on two legs, evolved simply because it used less energy than quad knuckle-walking.  If one looks at the force impact expended whilst quad-knuckle walking, it is comparably 4 times that of a bipedal footprint!  That’s huge.

I’m always looking for good tangential analogs for points I want to reinforce within the context of my line of work, and I found this fantastic fodder for such an exercise.

So without a lot of work on my part, I’m going to post some salient points from the article and leave it up to you to determine how, if at all, the "energetic" evolution of virtualization draws interesting parallels to this very interesting hypothesis; that the heretofore theorized complexity associated with this crucial element of human evolution was, in fact, simply an issue derived from energy efficiency which ultimately led to sustainable survivability and not necessarily because of ecological, behavioral or purely anatomical reasons:

From Here:

The origin of bipedalism, a defining feature of hominids, has been 
attributed to several
competing hypothesis. The postural feeding hypothesis
(Hunt 1996) is an ecological model.
The behavioral model (Lovejoy 1981) attributes bipedality to the social, sexual and
reproductive conduct
of early hominids. The thermoregulatory model (Wheeler 1991) views
increased heat loss, increased cooling, reduced heat gain and reduced water requirements conferred by a bipedal stance in a hot, tropical
climate as the selective pressure leading to bipedalism.

At its core, server virtualization might be described as a manifestation of how we rationalize and deal with the sliding-window impacts of time and the operational costs associated with keeping pace with the transformation and adaptation of technology in compressed footprints.  One might describe this as the "energy" (figuratively and literally) that it takes to operate our IT infrastructure.

It’s about doing more with less and being more efficient such that the "energy" used to produce and deliver services is small in comparison to the output mechanics of what is consumed.  One could suggest that once the efficiency gains (or savings?) are realized, the energy can be allocated to other more enabling abilities.  Using the ape to human bipedalism analog, one could suggest that bipedalism lead to bigger brains, better hunting/gathering skills, fashioning tools, etc.  Basically the initial step of efficiency gains leads to exponential capabilities over the long term.

So that’s my Captain Obvious declaration relating bipedalism with virtualization.  Ta Da!

From the article as sliced & diced by the fine folks at ScienceDaily:

Raichlen and his colleagues will publish the article, "Chimpanzee
locomotor energetics and the origin of human bipedalism" in the online
early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
(PNAS) during the week of July 16. The print issue will be published on
July 24.

Bipedalism marks a critical divergence between humans
and other apes and is considered a defining characteristic of human
ancestors. It has been hypothesized that the reduced energy cost of
walking upright would have provided evolutionary advantages by
decreasing the cost of foraging.

"For decades now researchers
have debated the role of energetics and the evolution of bipedalism,"
said Raichlen. "The big problem in the study of bipedalism was that
there was little data out there."

The researches collected
metabolic, kinematic and kenetic data from five chimpanzees and four
adult humans walking on a treadmill. The chimpanzees were trained to
walk quadrupedally and bipedally on the treadmill.

walking on two legs only used one-quarter of the energy that
chimpanzees who knuckle-walked on four legs did. On average, the
chimpanzees used the same amount of energy using two legs as they did
when they used four legs. However, there was variability among
chimpanzees in how much energy they used, and this difference
corresponded to their different gaits and anatomy.

"We were
able to tie the energetic cost in chimps to their anatomy," said
Raichlen. "We were able to show exactly why certain individuals were
able to walk bipedally more cheaply than others, and we did that with
biomechanical modeling."

The biomechanical modeling revealed
that more energy is used with shorter steps or more active muscle mass.
Indeed, the chimpanzee with the longest stride was the most efficient
walking upright.

"What those results allowed us to do was to
look at the fossil record and see whether fossil hominins show
adaptations that would have reduced bipedal energy expenditures," said
Raichlen. "We and many others have found these adaptations [such as
slight increases in hindlimb extension or length] in early hominins,
which tells us that energetics played a pretty large role in the
evolution of bipedalism."

The point here is not that I’m trying to be especially witty, but rather to illustrate that when we cut through the FUD and marketing surrounding server virtualization and focus on evolution versus revolution, some very interesting discussion points emerge regarding why folks choose to virtualize their server infrastructure.

After I attended the InterOp Data Center Summit, I walked away with a very different view of the benefits and costs of virtualization than I had before.  I think that as folks approach this topic, the realities of how the game changes once we start "walking upright" will provide a profound impact to how we view infrastructure and what the next step might bring.

Server virtualization at its most basic is about economic efficiency (read: energy == power + cooling…) plain and simple.  However, if we look beyond this as the first "step," we’ll see grid and utility computing paired with Web2.0/SaaS take us to a whole different level.  It’s going to push security to its absolute breaking point.

I liked the framing of the problem set with the bipedal analog.  I can’t wait until we come full circle, grow wings and start using mainframes again 😉

Did that make any bloody sense at all?


P.S. I liked Jeremiah’s evolution picture, too:




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  1. July 17th, 2007 at 16:57 | #1

    Oddly enough, it made a good deal of sense. It dovetails neatly with everything else we've seen so far. It also shows that what some of us thought was the way forward in the first couple of years of this decade – server blades, were just a dead branch in the evolution.
    Server blades didn't add much in the economic terms. Sure, you had a smaller rack footprint, but your cooling costs went up; and there was still a hard, physical limit to how many chassis you can put in one rack – put too many and they will melt.
    Virtualisation has the same level of administrative overhead in some regards, does away with quite tangible costs (cooling, extra moving bits, …) and is easily scalable.
    So yes, next realistic step seems to be mainframe revival. Except we won't call them mainframe.
    No, we'll have grid computing!
    Oh, Digital had their Vaxens in a grid.
    We'll have the matrix!
    What? A movie?
    I know, I know: The network is the computer. 😉

  2. July 17th, 2007 at 17:31 | #2

    Hmmm. It could be that you're just mad like me 😉
    @ InterOp it was fascinating to have the light bulb go on when Andreas Antonopolous from Nemertes highlighted the following points (one of which you mentioned:)
    * With server virtualization, the hotspots and energy consumption points in the datacenter movedl the "cool the room" approach no longer works and the impact on hot-aisle/cold-aisle cooling is also heavy.
    In China they are building tech building clusters with pebble-bed nuclear reactors near lakes for cooling/quench sources. They're doing this not because they have a power production problem, but rather because they have a power distribution problem. While power and cooling aren't a problem in these examples, I can't see putting a nuclear reactor in Manhattan to power/cool JP Morgan's new data center.
    Of course, if they went with one of Sun's Project Black Boxes (or something similar) you wouldn't necessarily need to…
    …watch for my next post on this.
    * While compute efficiency has increased, power consumption of even low-voltage chipsets has not. The gap between the two (following Moore's curve) is NOT linear and is contributing to even bigger data center problems as supplying enough power and cooling to a single rack is now an issue.
    In fact (I don't have my notes handy) the average power consumption per rack in 2001 was something like 2KW. Now with bladeservers and power-hungry network gear, it's somewhere near 20KW!
    Worse yet, even when the core chipsets get more efficient, the L2 caches grow larger and larger and they emit more heat than the processors!
    * The benefits of server virtualization are actually a one-time hit in terms of CapEx savings. Operationally, while you may have less physical carcasses to manage, the virtual machines, virtual storage, virtual security, and virtual networking can actually add to the complexity and operational complexity since now the server administrator typically has to become a jack of all trades. One could argue (and they do all the time with me) that this can actually make things *more* operationally complex and difficult to manage.
    * I've covered many times the security implications of this first widely adopted phase of mainstream server virtualization. I can't wait until we get to widespread grid/utility computing…back to thin clients (which will ease *that* problem) but then we'll have to figure out how to secure distributed processes, memory, etc. over a grid/cluster of those mainframe thingys that only 3 people in the world know how to manage.
    To be clear, I love the thoughts of the point-and-click, on-demand metaverse of virtualized utility computing, but we're *so* not ready for it from a security perspective.
    It would have been nice to be able to walk before we run…evolution, shmevolution!
    "The Revolution will be Virtualized!"

  3. July 17th, 2007 at 23:30 | #3

    Me? Mad? Well, at least I'm in a good company.
    As far as the challenges of virtualisation go, we shouldn't forget to market the benefits that it brings, and make sure that at least 10% of the savings (not just CapEx) goes towards security spending. Pass the costs as well as benefits.
    I know of at least one large web and server hosting company that managed to minimise their own data centre footprint four-fold and is now renting surplus rack space – something they didn't think they'd do in the past. Sure, they had to rethink their power and cooling strategy, but that wasn't too hard, since they were moving to a bigger, better facility anyway. 😉
    Agree, securing the monster is going to be hard, and the problem is squarely in the IT space here. Let's be honest, we suck at selling ourselves. We fail to properly communicate benefits to the business, and even worse, we fail to properly communicate the costs that the business will have to incur. We don't learn from history, and we don't learn from our own mistakes. So we end up with less funding for training, test environments, required products, …
    Did anyone mention reviving Multics?

  4. Eric hacker
    July 18th, 2007 at 04:22 | #4

    Taking the discussion back to the origin, think about the differences between humans and chimpanzees today. Obviously we are more intelligent. So is there a relationship between intelligence and energy efficiency? Does one drive the other, or do they both need to be developed in tandem?
    Greater energy efficiency allows greater movement. That then requires more memory in order to forage effectively.
    Clearly on the IT side, there are complexity issues that require more intelligence to make use of the energy efficiency in virtualization. Perhaps there were disadvantages with bipedalism in early humans that also forced an evolutionary drive towards more intelligence to survive. One can even hypothesize security disadvantages to bipedalism unless more intelligence is available in combat situations.
    Of course, all that is just speculating. Evolutionary theories are not very useful to us in a political context [1]. Nor can they be used to prove anything about virtualization. However any such easily understandable but unprovable theories are extremely useful in communicating issues through correlation. That helps others understand them. Indeed the metaphor is probably much more important to learning than what is currently understood scientifically.
    So don't apologize for borrowing some scientific research to make a point. Just don't try to use it to prove one.
    [1] Vaulting Ambition, Philip Kitcher http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?…

  5. July 18th, 2007 at 06:02 | #5

    "So don't apologize for borrowing some scientific research to make a point. Just don't try to use it to prove one."
    Oooph! Well said and understood.
    I assure you (as I disclaimed in the beginning of the post) that my intention was to merely coast along using the example as a corollary. Your point, however, is well taken.
    Eric, can you email me (click on the email link @ the upper right) as I have a question for you.
    Now, my next point will prove how cold fusion and patch management will cure world hunger. 😉

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