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Data Centers: The Environmental Costs of the Digital Age

October 21, 2012

You’ve probably received an email that says this in the bottom signature:


It’s a nice reminder. We’ve always thought that one of the greatest wastes from living in a digital age is all the printing and associated costs — paper, ink, energy– that are consumed in the process. But as the digital age has matured, we’ve learned a lot more about the energy consumed behind the scenes; the waste that occurs every time we compose and send an email (or, write a blog, tweet, pin, post, update). The brain that is the internet, turns out, is a huge energy hog.

These images, recently released by Google of some of their data centers, are quite impressive — beautiful, complex, and pretty foreign to most of us who have never had the chance to see the infrastructure that runs the biggest company in the digital age.

The release of these images comes at an interesting time, just a few weeks after the NY Times printed The Cloud Factories: Power, Pollution and the Internet. The Times reported that most companies run their facilities at full capacity, 24/7, without adjusting for demand. This means that of the energy being pulled from the grid to run these facilities, 90% is often wasted. Why?

Well, because, as I type this, my expectation is that I’ll stay connected. Each click and save added to the more than 1.8 trillion gigabytes of digital information that were created last year. That’s a truly staggering amount of data. So to keep up, and keep expectations met, data centers must be fully prepared to handle the load.

The NY Times says,

Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants…

With more than three million data centers worldwide (and growing every day), it’s the frontier for efficiency. And yet, nobody, is willing to unplug. Would you want to be the one responsible for bringing down a website as popular as Amazon? Facebook? YouTube? There is a true fear among those in the field that a mishap, even a second of disconnection, could end a career. And so company’s overbuild and overpower.

So, what can we do to raise awareness and drive innovation that will keep us connected AND as efficient as possible?

As the Times stated,

Some wonder if the very language of the Internet is a barrier to understanding how physical it is, and is likely to stay. Take, for example, the issue of storing data, said Randall H. Victora, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota who does research on magnetic storage devices.

“When somebody says, ‘I’m going to store something in the cloud, we don’t need disk drives anymore’ — the cloud is disk drives,” Mr. Victora said. “We get them one way or another. We just don’t know it.”

Whatever happens within the companies, it is clear that among consumers, what are now settled expectations largely drive the need for such a formidable infrastructure.

Perhaps Google does have the answer–share information. If we all equate storing something in the cloud to storing something in one of its colorful, expansive, data centers, we might see the Internet differently. And seeing is believing, even in the digital age.

all images via google by Connie Zhou

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