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Are the clouds green?

By Jan Claes, data expert @Maltem Luxembourg

Every CIO or IT manager who wants to be taken seriously these days is thinking Cloud: data (except for legal reasons) should not be stored locally, in a home-made data centre, but somewhere far (or not so far) away, in a virtual environment we call a data cloud.

Flexible, reliable (most of the time) and cheaper than traditional solutions, clouds are, on the face of it, an economically sound way to store data, but of course, it's not all peas and moonbeams... Besides the obvious privacy and security issues, these clouds have an impact on the environment. Or in other words: are clouds green?

At the heart of cloud implementation are huge data centres spread around the world. Data centres are simply many computers stacked on top of each other, and these computers are working hard non-stop to handle all the data streams created by millions of users. This produces a huge amount of heat that must be controlled by huge cooling systems. Cooling systems that use energy created mostly by fossil fuels, and fossil fuels mean carbon emissions!

Just to give an idea of the scale of energy consumption and carbon emissions: a single data centre requires more energy than a medium-sized city and seventeen per cent of the total carbon footprint caused by technology is due to data centres (2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions). 30 billion watts of electricity are required to run all data facilities (more than the entire UK), representing 3% of the world's electricity supply.

Carbon is not only a by-product of cloud systems, but also of electronic waste (E-waste). E-waste from data centres creates 2% of the world's solid waste and 70% of its toxic waste.

If you take into account the environmental costs (TCE, or Total Cost to the Environment) of a data facility, the price of maintaining a cloud system will suddenly seem less attractive. And in today's climate that is pushing for a more sustainable economy, investment and new ideas to solve these data centre problems are needed.

There are three main areas of interest to companies researching green data centres.

- – Alternative cooling systems

- – Alternative energy sources

- – Energy efficiency

For example, Google uses seawater and rainwater as coolant in its data centre in Finland, while Apple and Facebook power and cool their facilities with solar and wind power.

Artificial intelligence is also used to improve energy efficiency: algorithms diagnose the system and implement changes to achieve a better PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness). Another way to reduce the energy needed for cooling is to run the data centre at a higher temperature (40 degrees Celsius instead of 24). The new server technology allows the same performance to be achieved while operating in a warmer environment.

To reduce e-waste, a comprehensive recycling process (e.g. not sending your old equipment to a poor African company's landfill) of old equipment is the only valid and practical solution at the moment. The recovery of precious metals or the reuse of certain components should become common practice to avoid a tsunami of hazardous e-waste and collateral damage to people and the environment.

It is clear that there is still a long way to go before we can say that clouds are green. Efforts are being made to reduce the environmental impact of data centres, but watching your favourite series on Netflix has a cost. Think about it!