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Google Wave Is Better For The Environment June 16, 2009

Posted by Ivan Pols in design, interactive, technology.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Google Wave is the future of networked communication. Well, maybe. If a lot of people embrace the technology and make it common place. There are lots of barriers though, fear of a new interface, businesses where most people use e-mail like software are slow to change and sheer laziness because e-mail is “good enough”. There’s lots of talk about the potential of Google Wave Apps and work flow but I had an interesting thought about a very practical side-effect of Google Wave and a great reason to adopt this software. It’s good for the environment.

I will be upfront and admit that my math is awful and I’m taking a few liberties with my knowledge of complex systems. Please forgive any mistakes.


E-mail is an old system. It involves sending packets of information from one server to another. From one hard drive to another hard drive. Each person keeps a copy of their mail and the response. If multiple people are copied on an e-mail, like all business correspondence, then each person has a copy of every response on their hard drive. So if 8 people have a 30 mail conversation about an internal project, there are 240 copies of pieces of the conversation on 8 machines or inboxes. In my office, we all “reply with history” so people can keep track of where we were in the conversation. Even one word answers. At 1MB average per mail (history adds up), that’s 240MB of replicated data sitting on hard drives. If your company is like mine, 20 exchanges about a project over several months is not unheard of. That’s 4.68GB of replicated data on one company’s servers. A medium size company might have 100 projects a year like this. That’s 468.75GB a year. That’s not including video files, images, PPT documents and the other goodies that need sharing. Which is why Google decided to re-look e-mail I suppose.


Google Wave is different to e-mail. At it’s simplest there is only one copy of the conversation on the company server. The 8 users would access the mail but it would be a common document. There is no replication of the history of the conversation. There is a history time line function, but that’s simply a memory of what came when. So if the same 30 part conversation as the e-mail example had to happen and 1MB of history was accumulated, there would only be 1MB stored on the server instead of 240MB. With 20 conversations about a project over several months there would be 20MB of data stored versus 4.68GB. At 100 projects a year, the company would have to find space for 2GB of Wave storage versus the 468.75GB of e-mail. That’s 0.426% of the data storage needs of e-mail.

E-mail vs Google Wave

Even with 20 times more Wave data, it would still only be 40GB (8.5%). Let’s assume Google Wave only manages to cut 90% of the replication data of e-mail, that’s still 90% fewer servers and 90% less energy consumption (simplistically). I think it’ll be much better than that. Fewer hard drives means less toxic landfill and fewer raw materials used. Fewer servers means less stress on the power grid. The software makes a smaller carbon footprint that anything before it.

I have no idea if Google planned this, but by reconsidering e-mail they have saved themselves some cash and become better world citizens. Google runs giant server farms around the world and as they expand their services I assume they need to increase their cloud storage ability, basically lots of servers. By changing to their own Wave software they could bring their own voracious resource needs under control. Its good business for Google, and the rest of us, to spend less on technical infrastructure.

I work for a large multinational advertising company. We share hundreds of thousands of video files, documents, images and text every day. We could cut our e-mail carbon footprint by up to 99% by simply changing to e-mail software that is Open Source. That’s incredible. I wish it were that simple at a global corporate level, the system hates change, but there’s a better way to work on its way and its time to plan for an upgrade.

I would encourage everybody who cares about the environment and good software to bring this to the attention of their companies (it’s Open Source, they can customise for their own needs) and use it at home. Perhaps my math is vastly incorrect, but I doubt it’s 99.5% wrong.

Download the PDF chart

UPDATE: It has subsequently occurred to me that I failed to factor in the Google Wave time line functionality (what that does is capture each state of the Wave so that you can go back in time to see how it unfolded, grew, edited etc.) I suppose each state would require a total save of the e-mail, so it wouldn’t be a 95% saving of space, it would be something like:

1 Wave (1MB) x 30 Updates x 8 Recipients (1 copy) = 30MB per Wave

1 E-mail (1MB) x 30 Updates x 8 Recipients = 240MB per exchange

Which shows Google Wave would use about 12.5% of the hard drive storage of E-mail (not 0.43%).



1. emilythinks - June 17, 2009

I heart your chart. And mind. Great post Pols.

2. Chris - June 17, 2009

Ivan. Nice overview. Makes sense to me. But there could be somewhere else Google Wave would make a big difference in the actual worldwide network usage of the internet.

Because (as far as I could tell), you invite people to join your Wave, and no one else can join from the outside without your approval. They could bring SPAM to it’s knees.

In the paper yesterday, it stated that 92% of internet traffic was taken up by SPAM emails. That’s a lot of wasted bandwidth on vi@gra etc..

Obviously it might take a few years to get people to work on Wave, as you say, Corporates are the “It does the minimum, so why should I pay for change” people.

Nice write up. Google should investigate it.


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4. sabrina - August 2, 2009

interesting, i’d like to see this in action. i doubt i fully comprehend exactly how it works, is it available yet or is it kinda ‘in the process’?

Ivan Pols - August 4, 2009

Apparently in September they’ll hand out some invitations to the public.
Do a Google search to add your name to the list.

5. Henare Degan - August 27, 2009

Hi Ivan,

Great graphics! Sorry to be a bit of a downer on this theory but most mail systems implement some form of single instance storage so for your example, the internal duplicates would only be stored as a single email on the disk. This unfortunately puts you back to 1:1 in your formula of Wave vs. email.

I still like the visualisation you created and your thinking though 🙂


Ivan Pols - August 27, 2009

Although that still doesn’t explain the volume of space the redundant e-mail history takes up on my personal computer when the e-mail downloads. It’s very nice that the server is not keep copies of copies, but my laptop most definitely is. I think there’s still something to this.

In any case I get marks for effort and creativity if not a deep understanding of email systems.
I’ll take it. Thanks.

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7. Ryan Speets - October 4, 2009

I believe wave only saves the differences (deltas) on the timeline, so I think your storage estimate for the waves in your update is a bit high.

Ivan Pols - October 4, 2009

Yep. My estimates are wonky.

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