always online?
October 4, 2018 8:01 AM   Subscribe

And y'know what? It looks great! While the dithered images may be a bit less power-efficient than 70% jpegs (according to the comments), I think they have a great aesthetic and, along with the theme and colors, actually make the website feel like a magazine.

Plus the site performance is fantastic and oh, the joy of not being tracked. If only this were more widely adopted.

I'm sure the biggest obstacle to adoption is the business model (no ads), rather than the technical details.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 8:16 AM on October 4, 2018 [9 favorites]

This has got to use more energy that slapping five thousand static sites on a single big server. I mean, even if it uses less energy per page view (which I doubt), it's never going to recoup the costs of manufacturing that dinky server rig.
posted by Leon at 8:28 AM on October 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is absolutely awesome. The sooner the utterly hideous repeat offenders out there on the web start taking just a few of the hints given here, the better. Not just for the environment, but for users too.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 8:30 AM on October 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

This has got to use more energy that slapping five thousand static sites on a single big server.

But then you have a big server.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:12 AM on October 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Computational energy efficiency is something I think a lot about after reading this article by James Hague about optimizing for fan speed. There's always discussion about optimizing for speed and memory, but I haven't come across much writing about optimizing for energy usage. It's pretty obvious that the less computation or I/O you have to do, the more energy you save... but I haven't got any sense of how you profile code to figure out what consumes the most energy. How do I know what change ca get the most efficiency for the time spent working on it? What gets me more energy savings: fewer website requests? Fewer DB queries? Using a different programming language? Is it even practical for a small development group to analyse that sort of thing?

As for programming languages specifically, I did find an interesting paper, Energy Efficiency across Programming Languages. Gotta read it...
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:24 AM on October 4, 2018 [6 favorites]

But then you have a big server.

No, Amazon or Digitalocean has a big server(s). You just have a timeshare on it. It's the difference between everyone having a moped, or taking buses.
posted by zabuni at 9:28 AM on October 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

They raise a good point about page size though. When was the last time a web page took forever to load where you hear "This page is TOO BIG"... instead of "This computer is SO SLOOOOOW"

Fast connections and powerful systems (even on mobile!) means page designers (and especially the advertisers!) can afford to get supremely lazy. 57+ calls to load offsite scripts and frameworks and ads and etc. before the content actually loads.

We don't need faster computers, we need smaller websites.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:12 AM on October 4, 2018 [11 favorites]

The "solar-powered website" framing is really odd. Solar doesn't mean not being able to operate normally. Sounds like somebody should have gotten a bigger array. And if you're going to run off the grid (Which, why would you run an off-grid server? Like, you're going to plug into the data network but not the power network? Why?) you should really invest in a battery system so that you can run 24/7. Their portrayal of solar is way different from the way solar actually works in the 21st century. I say this as someone who works in the solar industry.

This isn't the 1980s where solar only makes sense for off-grid cabins in the middle of nowhere and you can only use it on sunny days and only for small loads. Solar is mainstream now. Some of the electricity that runs your house today was generated by solar panels on neighboring houses and businesses, or on the side of the highway, or out in a brownfield somewhere outside of town.

Solar power is just power, only cleaner and cheaper.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:33 AM on October 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

Instead of solar power, could we do this en masse and have the website(s) powered by a treadmill?
Asking for a unhealthy nation friend.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 10:34 AM on October 4, 2018

Like they are so wrong about solar that I am actually kinda irritated. I feel like they're perpetuating negative myths about what is really one of the most positively transformative technologies to come along in the last decade. I didn't realize that people were still so ignorant about solar; I guess coming from an area where it seems like about one in four homes has a rooftop array (there are 368,844 rooftop solar installations in my home state of Massachusetts) I'm used to people thinking of solar as normal and mainstream, something that you do if you want to wipe out your electric bill and feel good about your environmental impact at the same time, rather than some radical hairshirted lifestyle choice that involves making drastic changes in the way you live day-to-day.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:42 AM on October 4, 2018 [8 favorites]

If only there was a part of the site, maybe hyperlinked, where they talked about it? It might say something like "The web server is now powered by a new 50 Wp solar panel and a two year old 12V 7Ah lead-acid battery."

Unfortunately its impossible to know.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:18 AM on October 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

Like they are so wrong about solar that I am actually kinda irritated.

I've been reading Low Tech and their sister site No Tech for years now. I think you guys are missing the point... doing things with the minimum amount of tech or resources as possible or with wierd obsolete or forgotten tech is kinda their Thing.

Sure, solar is pretty mainstream and you could run ordinary computers on it. But that isn't what Low/No Tech is about. They are always discussing things like using water power, human power, compressed air and other alternate, simple, and low-energy techs to run the world.
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:19 AM on October 4, 2018 [9 favorites]

Yeah, but the very first thing on their site is, "This is a solar-powered website, which means it sometimes goes offline."

Which just isn't an accurate portrayal of what solar means. Solar is better than that. There is still a persistent myth around solar that it's this janky, unreliable, fringe thing that can never supply enough electricity to do normal stuff. That's absolutely not true, but the myth of it is one of the things that continues to hold back the cheapest, cleanest, most effective power source that our civilization has to offer. It's practically a conservative talking point, and it's absolutely incorrect. I would have hoped that an organization like this would know better.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:45 AM on October 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The: rather than some radical hairshirted lifestyle choice that involves making drastic changes in the way you live day-to-day.

I see that you are new to Low Tech Magazine.
posted by clawsoon at 12:52 PM on October 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

posted by mxdv at 2:21 PM on October 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

Which just isn't an accurate portrayal of what solar means

I took it to mean that it sometimes depletes the thing that supplies its 26W (or whatever) of power. I don't know if that's technically coherent, though. Layman's interpretation.
posted by rhizome at 4:06 PM on October 4, 2018

Well sure, but all that means is that their system is undersized. The server doesn't go down because it's solar powered, it goes down because the PV system running it is badly designed for the load. A single low-power server would be trivial to run 24/7 if you just built a bigger (but still really small!) system to power it.

It's like if someone decided to grow all their own food but they only built a single 3'x5' raised bed—and then claimed that, "Because I grow all my own food, I sometimes go hungry." No buddy, it's because your garden is too small.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:22 PM on October 4, 2018 [6 favorites]

Their system is undersized presumably because it is still running off of whatever solar they can get on their balcony. The North American model where everybody has their own roof to fill with solar panels does not scale perfectly to a small apartment in Barcelona.

I will concede, however, that there probably could be some more storage optimization. In TFA, it was mentioned that "we may add a second 7 Ah battery in autumn" if necessary.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 5:16 PM on October 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

Fuck, this is a terrible idea.

It's a hair-shirted, lifestyle choice. They are doing it badly while justifying it with poor-thought-through arguments.

The answer is not individualist solutions, it's systematic change.

Solar is perfectly capable of supporting a modern civilisation, when used alongside other renewables with appropriate storage. Servers can and have cut their energy use drastically, when used as part of a large-scale data-centre where the company running the data-centre has every incentive to measure and reduce their energy costs. And web pages can present exactly the information you need and nothing more without flogging bits to off to advertisers and trackers if, and only if, you've got a business model that's better than "we give you free content paid for by monetising your privacy".
posted by happyinmotion at 7:36 PM on October 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

A static website run on an individual server is probably not better than the same static website run on a modern vhost platform, but it is probably better than a "modern" (i.e. horribly bloated, with a database backend and god knows what else) site on the big server.

So maybe the better solution is to use a very resource-constrained server as the development or test platform, but not for production. Force yourself to work within those limitations as you develop the site, as a way of resisting the temptation offered by AWS et al, but then at the end, toss the site up onto a shared machine with bazillions of others.

Or, you know, just do GitHub Pages and call it a day.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:53 PM on October 4, 2018

I see that you are new to Low Tech Magazine.

So is this like Jimmy Carter getting the boot because he suggested that appropriate clothes might be more energy efficient than central heating? Yes, that's totally hairshirting that.

We're all fucking doomed.
posted by pompomtom at 9:41 PM on October 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel as though people are missing the point, unintentionally I'd assume. A hobbyist magazine titled "Low Tech" is not looking for the best way to utilize AWS or static websites on a vhost. If their aim was continuous uptime, they could achieve that easily. The entire aim is to bring a minimal (possibly off the shelf) amount of tech to achieve certain goals. If the website goes down they've said they'll add another battery, if it doesn't go down I imagine they'll try a smaller battery to find the minimum tech they can bring to accomplish their goal. Also, the disclaimer in the website makes it clear that 100% uptime is not their goal.
posted by I paid money to offer this... insight? at 11:47 PM on October 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

I definitely felt a little irritated about how they talk about solar. The article states that "solar and wind power are not always available" or always on Internet access does "not combine well with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, which are not always available." The former is the a common argument used by fossil fuel proponents to slow down (or stop) the renewable transition. Without the greater context of the magazine, or issues of renewable energy reliability on the utility scale, it feels a bit like bashing solar power even if they're using it for their website.

The latter statement-- and perhaps the whole idea of a website that isn't always available-- is relying on the idea of social transition that isn't really argued for in the article alone... though just browsing some of the other articles does enough to explain where Low Tech is coming from. I initially found it bit off-putting as one coming from a society that demands 24/7 Internet access.

But thinking on it, I think I could actually okay with not having access to something like Metafilter at past midnight on a Thursday... A change to a society that isn't so obsessed with the Internet all the time could provide benefits beyond saving energy. There are millions of people around the world without immediate internet access. Intermittent websites are probably not necessary for a world that gets most of its energy from renewables, but giving consideration to it gives us another tool to think about how we can tackle resource conservation.
posted by Mister Cheese at 12:57 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Could all the pro-modern-solar-approaches folks at least take the time to re-read the site's actual justification for its choices regarding storage?
Quite a few web hosting companies claim that their servers are running on renewable energy. However, even when they actually generate solar power on-site, and do not merely “offset” fossil fuel power use by planting trees or the like, their websites are always on-line.

This means that either they have a giant battery storage system on-site (which makes their power system unsustainable), or that they are relying on grid power when there is a shortage of solar power (which means that they do not really run on 100% solar power).

In contrast, this website runs on an off-the-grid solar power system with its own energy storage, and will go off-line during longer periods of cloudy weather. Less than 100% reliability is essential for the sustainability of an off-the-grid solar system, because above a certain threshold the fossil fuel energy used for producing and replacing the batteries is higher than the fossil fuel energy saved by the solar panels.
(emphasis mine)

They have made a very specific calculation about how much technology to use to support the power requirements of this site, and it is based on their own analysis of environmental impacts. You can disagree with where the correct level of compromise sits, but you probably should be more specific when you claim they're wrong about how solar power works.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:18 AM on October 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

Now now, there's enough sunlight to go around for everyone. Solar power can be both a hair-shirted low-tech toy AND an expensive way to pay your electric bills for the next 25 years in advance.
posted by sfenders at 4:16 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was about to post the same quote, rum-soaked space hobo. Thanks for getting to it first. One point that Low Tech Magazine consistently makes is that you can't ignore embodied energy when you're evaluating how sustainable a technology is. They never ask, "How can we use a little less energy and add more renewables to the mix?" Instead, they ask, "What technologies might be sustainable if we had no fossil fuels at all? What technologies might be sustainable in the very, very long term?"

I'm impressed with their server: 1-2.5 watts, and (from the comment section):
While on the front page of the popular website HackerNews we got 500,000 requests in a few hours, yet the 15 minute average load of the server never reached above 30% of total capacity. So yes multiple popular websites built around the same principles and technologies could have fit comfortably on the same machine.
I wonder how that 1-2.5 watts compares to the energy usage of a typical large-scale shared hosting provider.

A quick calculation tells me that an average moderately fit adult could generate enough energy to power the website with half an hour a day or so on a stationary bicycle.

A further part of the point they're aiming for, from the same comment, and the part I found most interesting:
We are aware that we could make multiple servers around the world to always have the sun shining and use clever routing to always have the machine on-line. However this was besides the point for us and contra-productive to our message. If weather-based renewable energy is to ever become our main source of energy, that only works if we massively decrease our energy use and adapt our patterns to availability.

In the case of our server it is fairly simple to have a 90% uptime with a cheap and energy efficient computer and a small solar panel. However. to go above that 90% we would need to double or triple the machines used, the solar panels necessary and our storage capacity available. That is not even mentioning the resources necessary to maintain all of this in different parts of the world. If this is to work in a sustainable way, we have to change our attitude and the best way to do that in terms of web is to challenge the holy grail of ‘uptime’.

For me the articles How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone and How to Run the Economy on the Weather where very informative in this respect.
They're arguing that each additional "9" in your uptime has an oversized sustainability cost, so they're going for single-9s uptime. That's not an argument I've heard before.

(I think they might have trouble hitting 90% uptime when they have inevitable equipment failures if they don't have spares on-site, but that reinforces the point that they're making: More reliability can only be achieved with more embodied energy.)
posted by clawsoon at 4:46 AM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Good morning y'all. I wanted to come back to this in a better mood; I was feeling pretty grumpy yesterday for reasons that would be better discussed in the politics thread than in this one, and I think I ended up taking a needlessly combative tone that perhaps overshadowed the point I was trying to make. My apologies. Let me try again:

I have read the article and while I found it interesting and thought-provoking, and while I found the author's system-building essay particularly interesting and ingenious (excellent use of Meccano for an adjustable-tilt racking system) I think that the whole project rests on a premise that's flawed in a couple of key ways.

I would posit that if you're arguing that off-grid, onsite power generation is the only way to be truly sustainable in one's energy use, you're also implicitly arguing that society is doomed and that we are rapidly heading for a global calamity the likes of which would make the Black Death look like an elementary school chickenpox outbreak. There is no way to have seven billion people on this planet unless we work together, and that means generating power communally and sharing it around. Should we be moving toward a 100% renewable grid much faster than we are doing? Yes, of course. Are there significant technical hurdles in the way? Certainly, but they are as nothing compared to the frank impossibility of having this many people living on the planet without also having communal infrastructure. If the author had presented his piece as a thought-provoking experiment in micro-scale home energy production, that would be one thing. The way it's actually presented though is like some kind of Fox News propaganda argument for the futility of transitioning to renewable energy. It's also not true, by the way, that battery storage is more resource-and-energy-intensive than fossil fuel generation. It's true that it's more intensive up front, but the break-even time is only about three years for lithium batteries.

Once you accept that a high-rise apartment is going to need to be on the grid, it actually becomes pretty feasible to generate as much power as you like from solar. I don't know how things work in Barcelona, but here in Massachusetts we have community solar projects that anyone—even renters of high-rise apartment units—can buy into. You buy (or lease, but buying is usually a better deal) a share of a solar farm equivalent to the amount of energy that you expect to use, and you reap the offsets and incentives associated with your share's production just as you would if the panels were on the roof of your house. Since we do have an electric grid, there's absolutely no reason why the power needs to be generated in the same spot as it is consumed—and in fact, even rooftop solar generally sends part or all of the power it generates out into the grid anyway, rather than requiring it to be consumed on the premises. You can even keep your share if you move, as long as you move to somewhere served by the same utility company.

Yes, we need to be doing a lot more to find ways to serve renewable power even when generation doesn't match demand. It can be done though, if we put our minds to it. And even as things currently stand there is plenty more room on the grid for PV, if only we could get our legislators to fix the incentive structure. So far, fossil fuel lobbyists have generally been successful at getting legislation that protects their business model and ensures that they can keep building more natural gas plants. That's not a technical limitation though, it's a policy issue. If we were willing to accept a world in which fewer new fossil fuel power plants were built (what a tragedy that would be!) we could roll out a lot more PV even under the current paradigm. We're getting real close to being able to do large-scale storage though (and small-scale storage is already here!) at which point we're going to see another paradigm shift toward renewables—as long as we act like we're living in a society and make good use of the grid.

P.S. I'm totally on board with putting on the longjohns when it gets cold out.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:41 AM on October 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

Oh and hey, you don't necessarily need to "pay the next 25 years of your electric bills in advance." First off, typical break-even time for a residential solar project is only 5-10 years. Secondly, in my area anyway there is a state-sponsored solar loan program that allows people with low and moderate incomes to have solar installed with no money paid up front. Instead, they get a 0% APR loan from the state, with the payments calculated so that they are lower than the customer's existing electrical bills. Once the loan is paid off, they then own their system outright and pay nothing at all—but there's no need for a down payment, there's no interest on the loan, and it's structured so that they start saving money right away.

This thing can really work, people. It just requires a functioning government.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:53 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

But I liked solar better when it was actually a gesture toward a radical environmental politics, and not simply another arrow in the "sustainable development" quiver. Sigh.
posted by adamgreenfield at 6:38 AM on October 5, 2018

Personally, I'll trade a radical gesture for a practical solution any day. Even in a scenario where we reduce our population and our per-capita consumption by half over the next 30 years (how's that for radical?) there will still be a need for an energy grid and it will still need to be based on renewable technology. Solar may not be radical anymore, but it's the closest thing we currently have to a real solution—and it's getting better all the time.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:57 AM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Personally, I'll trade a radical gesture for a practical solution any day.

That's a fair point. There's certainly value in having good radical ideas become normal. I'm not going to complain that women's suffrage is sooo mainstream, now, man, I liked it better when it was daring.
posted by clawsoon at 7:04 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

> I wonder how that 1-2.5 watts compares to the energy usage of a typical large-scale shared hosting provider.

Is that even the thing you want to be measuring? I mean, what exactly are we trying to achieve here? The "why" is honestly still not clear to me.

But pulling some rough numbers out of my ass.... 5000 vhosts, 1 1kw server... 0.2W per vhost. An order of magnitude better than this setup. We can add another server, get a couple of extra 9s, and still come in at less than half the power consumption.

> They're arguing that each additional "9" in your uptime has an oversized sustainability cost, so they're going for single-9s uptime. That's not an argument I've heard before.

You're right that's a novel argument, but I think it's wrong because these days we share the cost of that extra 9 over many, many organisations. People who live in cities have less environmental impact than people who live in the countryside. I bet the same goes for websites. But as I said I'm not even clear that "reduce environmental impact" is the goal here.
posted by Leon at 8:32 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

But as I said I'm not even clear that "reduce environmental impact" is the goal here.

I think that it is, but (as they stated way down in the comments) with this and this as the underlying assumptions.
posted by clawsoon at 8:42 AM on October 5, 2018

Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic than it is today.

Well, we are trying to better match demand and supply. That's what smart metering is all about. Different rates for electricity at different times of day, so that it costs less to use electricity at low-demand times and more at peak times. The goal is to smooth out the demand curve so that we don't need to build so many natural-gas-fired peaking plants. If the supply side of things changed (as for instance if a larger portion of the grid was being supplied by PV) then we could make it cheaper to use electricity during the daylight hours.

That's not a low-tech solution, but it might get people and businesses to change their usage patterns when they otherwise wouldn't bother.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:52 AM on October 5, 2018

Ok, that first link makes sense. But their arguments about the energy required to create storage batteries also applies to 2W servers. It simply costs more to build distributed systems.
posted by Leon at 9:00 AM on October 5, 2018

That's not a low-tech solution, but it might get people and businesses to change their usage patterns when they otherwise wouldn't bother.

My impression of how smart metering is playing out here in Ontario is that it hits the people hardest who have the least flexibility in their lives - i.e. poor working people - which makes them mad at environmentalism and gets them voting for somebody who cancels wind-power projects.

However... somebody who proposed adjusting demand to supply, as Low Tech Magazine does, would face even larger, angrier opposition. We'll probably all have to end up living in the Low Tech Magazine world one day, but we'll fight it every step of the way. Nothing says "broken government" to people like a government that allows brownouts to happen on a regular basis.
posted by clawsoon at 9:06 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

But their arguments about the energy required to create storage batteries also applies to 2W servers.

And that's exactly why they're undersizing their batteries, as they said.
posted by clawsoon at 9:08 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm liking it more as a thought experiment now, though - what would the world look like if we had wind, solar and no batteries? The internet-as-she-exists would need a route between you and your destination that was under sunlight. Sites in the antipodes would be unreachable. Internet activity would roll around the planet following the sun.

In those circumstances, a Fidonet-style store-and-forward system for data would be much more practical. And the rhythms of life would be different - much more agrarian. Larks would love it, nightowls would be stuffed.
posted by Leon at 9:09 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I love this sort of thinking, the optimism makes me happy, but yeah, let’s be serious: it’s bullshit and we’re all going to die from climate change. It'd be best if you're older than everyone you know.
posted by pompomtom at 9:09 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Well, this thread certainly mananged to suck the life out of an interesting and fun project.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 3:24 PM on October 5, 2018 [8 favorites]

Found it an entertaining read. Wondered why they didn't go for a Pi Zero W or similar but then they mentioned there was built in support for power-monitoring (which you can add to Pi's but I'm guessing its just easier if its all built in).

Also reminded me of the Newton Personal Web Server (NPDS). And sure enough theres an android package for a web-server too - they could have run something similar via a phone or tablet (albiet you loose a lot of functionality/flexibility by not having a full linux distro and all its packages to play with & tweak).
posted by phigmov at 8:19 PM on October 5, 2018

These folks have some pretty ambitious goals. If you red the comments, it seems that Kris De Decker wants to replace the batteries with compressed air storage, presumably with some sort of trigeneration system (so they use the heating and cooling effect of the compression and release to heat and cool household areas or objects as desired).

It's a pity people see this site and jump to conclusions about the overall goals. It is a fascinating project, overall.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 5:14 AM on October 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

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