Head in the Clouds

Head in the Clouds

The word ‘cloud’ is used a lot in our modern lives. Apart from the things in the sky that store rain, the cloud can be somewhere we access work documents, where we store digital photos, upload videos for family abroad to see or using a cloud-based email system.

But what is the cloud really?

Most of us are guilty of saying “it’s stored in the cloud” without actually knowing exactly what that means; surely our precious memories or private work documents aren’t just floating around in the sky?

I am sorry to disappoint, but the first myth to bust is that data is not actually stored in a cloud.

As of January 2021, 60% of the world's population has access to the Internet. That's around 4.6bn people. There are around 3.5bn searches on Google every day (that's around 40,000 searches per second) and with the popular search engine showing hundreds of millions of results, usually in under a second, that's a lot of power and energy.

When it comes to social media the figures do not disappoint either. Around 1.84bn people are active on Facebook every day. Instagram has over 1bn monthly users with 197m posts on Instagram tagged with #cat in January 2020 alone. 

That's a lot of activity and a lot of information being shared, downloaded and uploaded around the world.

All of that data has to be stored somewhere physical and cannot just float around in the atmosphere until it is required.

Our Internet activity is actually made possible by millions of servers located around the  world. Every website you request to view, every song or movie you stream and every document you access online is stored on at least one machine in at least one physical location. 

That piece of media that you access through the Internet could be stored on a small computer on someone's private property, or it could be stored across several different drives on several machines at several locations.

Typically, however, most of the things you access; social media, streaming services and secure office applications and documents; will be stored in facilities specifically designed to store data. These locations are known as data centres and can range from a small room with a handful of racks and computer systems to colossal warehouses full of computer and data storage equipment.

The Cost of the Cloud

Data centres operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They always have to be turned on and ready to deliver content within milliseconds of it being requested and the required processing speed alone demands large amounts of electricity.

Some of the largest data centres are located in the United States. One of which is in Utah which occupies around 1.5m sq ft and uses 65MW of electricity each year costing around 40 million USD; and that’s just one of the millions of data centres located around the world. To provide some perspective, the average house in the United Kingdom is 730sq ft and uses around 3,000 - 4,000kW of electricity per year.

Google's Netherlands Datacentre

Google Datacenter near Delfzijl in the province of Groningen, Netherlands

By branding these centres as 'clouds', it causes a level of dissociation with end-users and their understanding of their role within the process of data usage; it distracts from the fact that data centres are some of the most energy intensive facilities. 

There are several reports detailing the energy use of data centres:

  • A report by the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Opportunities for Combined Heat and Power in Data Centers, shows that data centres consume 10 to 50 times more energy than a normal office building. 
  • Another report by Koomey in 2011 estimated that data centres accounted for between 1.1% to 1.5% of global electricity use.
  • A further article by Nicola Jones emphasises this 1% and that, as the demand for data grows, data centre energy use will grow too. However, with estimates of data centres using between 200 - 500TWh, and studies using the lower end of the figure, this percentage could be higher.

With all that electricity production and consumption comes CO2 emissions. A study by Data Economy in 2017 estimates that data centres around the globe emit roughly as much CO2 as the commercial airline industry. 

The challenge in being able to accurately calculate CO2 emissions of data centres, ironically, lies in the lack of data; some locations are kept secret for security reasons. However, some of the big data centre users such as Google, Facebook and Apple, publicly report on the CO2 emissions of their data centers.  

The Future of The Cloud

As technology develops, companies continually seek to reduce their carbon impact. Google, for example, has been carbon neutral since 2007. However, it has achieved this by purchasing credits to offset their emissions and utilising renewable tariffs. The same goes for their data centres; they purchase enough renewable energy to match their global energy consumption.

Though carbon offsetting does offer environmental benefits, it is not the answer to addressing a data centre’s growing hunger for electricity. For data centres to claim carbon neutrality they need to focus their efforts on onsite generation and have it account for 100% of their conumsption to be carbon neutral.

The current technological landscape limits but does not rule out options. Installing solar panels on the roofs, they have enough space, and installing wind turbines can be a start. Either large-scale onshore style turbines or the more recent concept of city urbines, coupled with closed-circuit hydrogen fuel cells could lead data centres down the road to carbon neutrality. Where data centres are unable to fully achieve being carbon neutral, the feasability of a CHP could be considered.

The elephant in the room to be addressed, however, is not the energy the data centres use, it's the end-user. With the knowledge that the picture of your pet you are about to post is contributing to climate change, the real question is; does the world need to see my cat in a bowtie?

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