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IEEE Talks Green ICT: Dr. Earl McCune

Dr. Earl McCune is an IEEE Fellow and represents the Microwave Theory and Techniques and Solid State Circuits societies in the IEEE Green ICT Initiative. In his work for the Initiative, McCune has been instrumental in articulating proposals for hardware efficiency improvement standards now under development. He is also a member of the Communications, Vehicular Technology, Aerospace Engineering, and Circuits and Systems societies in IEEE. McCune earned his Ph.D. in radio communications from the University of California, Davis, and serves as CTO of Eridan Communications. In this interview Dr. McCune discusses the multi-disciplinary approach the Initiative has taken to greening ICT, among other topics.

Question: Would you introduce yourself to readers and explain how you got involved with the Green ICT Initiative?

McCune: I’ve been an IEEE member for nearly 40 years now and I’ve long been a member of numerous IEEE societies. The Communications Society (ComSoc) took the lead on establishing the Green ICT Initiative and it reached out to other societies for participation. Because my fundamental background is radio frequency (RF) circuitry and related operational efficiencies – and because I’d made enough noise – the presidents of two societies in which I am a member said they knew “just the guy” to contribute to Green ICT. So, within the Initiative, my portfolio includes representing the Microwave Theory and Techniques and Solid State Circuits societies.

Question: How do these distinct disciplines contribute to greening ICT?

McCune: Fundamentally, all efficiency losses happen inside hardware, for many different reasons. Cooperation between disciplines is necessary to address them all. For example, just turning on a transistor and putting out a signal burns power, so we need the involvement of the signal people. But the circuit people can only do as much as the system definitions and the waveforms from the standards allow. For example, in the wireless local area network (WLAN) standards, the present efficiency level for power amplifiers implementing wireless LAN is way below 10 percent, even though the transistors are capable of getting over a 60 percent efficiency level. That lower efficiency ceiling is a direct result of the signal type that the standards committees have specified. The properties of the signal are largely defined by the folks in ComSoc. The physics that the circuitry people must deal with restricts the circuit design options enough that the operating efficiency level is not what the technology is capable of, but is ceilinged at a much lower value.

On the IT side, we need folks who can help ensure that the system is turned on only when it needs to be, thus protocols and power management need to be jointly optimized. All of these people must work together to green ICT. No single society has the full scope of knowledge and skills to address the challenge, so a multi-disciplinary approach combining the expertise of multiple IEEE societies is most effective.

Question: You’ve personally been involved in proposing standards for specific areas of Green ICT. Can you provide an example that would illustrate this effort?

McCune: Two standards proposals have been approved by the standards development board and I’ve been appointed as the working group chair for them. One is IEEE P1923.1™, which addresses the signal design issue by dealing with the hardware design constraints to tackle the efficiency ceiling. We need to figure all this out ahead of time, using consistent methods, so we don’t accidentally bump up into an unacceptable efficiency ceiling while implementing any standard. That’s a process that, technically, people know how to do, but it isn’t being done. So work on this standard could directly solve that problem. How can we standardize the evaluation of proposed signal modulation so that we know ahead of time what the efficiency impact is going to be when we implement them?

Then, through further standards deliberations, one can choose whether there are properties of a given signal that are valuable enough that we should accept a lower efficiency rate, or to instead change the signal type to realize a higher efficiency rate. How that shakes out is up to any individual standards committee working on their particular problem, but we want to provide all working groups with a uniform tool to help implement their choices.

Question: Initially, over the latter half of the 20th century, work in processing and communications primarily focused on performance, rather than energy consumption. This drive for efficiencies really goes to the heart of the Green ICT movement, doesn’t it?   

McCune: Yes, thus far we’ve designed for effectiveness, while energy use and efficiency have not been a big part of the deliberations. It struck me, once I began attending Initiative meetings, that the discussions are largely protocol based – when we turn things on and off, how we move things from here to there, logically, and possibly physically. The corollary is: are we using the appropriate amount of energy to get this job done or can we make some improvements in that area?

My experience, on the hardware side of this world, is that if you can improve the hardware to draw energy only when it needs to, and draw the minimum amount of energy it needs to accomplish a task – within the laws of physics governing that task – then all these protocol improvements we make can be leveraged even further.

Question: You’ve described your ongoing work in the standards arena. How are you impacting other areas of the Green ICT effort?

McCune: I’d like to raise awareness that a lot of the energy we’re drawing to make ICT operate right now is based on decisions made by standards people in the past, who didn’t fully understand the impacts that adopted approaches have on hardware design and operation. So I’ve tried to point out specific examples as we go along, and people often have an “aha” moment. We need a different approach and I’m pleased to play a role in hastening the transition to greater awareness of energy use and efficiencies in the ICT context. As a result, the standards proposals that we all work together on have benefitted.

Question: What do you see as your own mid- and long-term aspirations for contributing to the Green ICT Initiative?

McCune: Looking at ICT generally and the Initiative’s stated goal of a 1,000-fold improvement in capacity while drawing no more additional energy than we do today – that’s a pretty tall order. If we keep building things essentially the same way as we are now and expect them to behave differently, it’s not going to happen. To achieve our stated goal, we’ll have to go about building things much differently than we do now. To be successful, we need inputs from all relevant IEEE societies and, outside IEEE, many disparate communities, including policymakers and non-technical people. ICT is a fundamental underpinning to how society operates now. To meet the energy efficiency levels needed to succeed will require efforts by everyone.          

In fact, to learn more and participate in this effort, the IEEE Green ICT Initiative will hold its first global summit in Paris, 3 October 2017, an event billed as Greening Through ICT Summit