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Are Clouds Green?

By Jan Claes a Data expert @Maltem Luxembourg

Every CIO or IT director that wants to be taken seriously at the moment thinks “Cloud”: data (except when there are legal reasons) should not be stored locally, in a homemade data center, but somewhere far (or not so far) away, in a virtual environment that we call a data cloud.

Flexible, reliable (most of the time) and cheaper than traditional solutions,  clouds are on first view economically a valid way to store data, but of course it is not all polka dots and moonbeams… Next to the obvious privacy and security issues, there is an impact of these clouds on the environment. Or in other words: are clouds green?

At the heart of the cloud setup are huge data centers that are spread all around the world. Data centers are simply numerous computers stacked together, and these computers are working hard non-stop to manage all the data streams created by millions of users. This produces an enormous amount of heat which needs to be controlled by gigantic cooling systems. Cooling systems that use energy created most of the time by fossil fuels, and who says “fossil fuels” says also “carbon emission”!

Just to give an idea of the scale of energy consumption and carbon emission: a single data center needs more power than a medium-size town and seventeen percent of the total carbon footprint caused by technology is due to data centers (2% of the total global greenhouse emissions). 30 billion watts of electricity is needed to keep all the data facilities running (more power consumption than the entire UK) which accounts for 3% of the global electricity supply.

Not only carbon is a by-product of cloud systems, but also electronic waste (E-waste). E-waste from data centers creates  2% of solid waste and 70% of toxic waste worldwide.

If you take into account the environmental costs (TCE, or Total Cost to the Environment) of a data facility, the price to maintain a cloud system will suddenly look less attractive. And in a current climate that pushes for a more sustainable economy, investments and new ideas to tackle these data center issues are needed.

Companies that are researching green data centers are looking mostly into three main areas.

        Alternative cooling systems

        Alternative energy sources

        Power efficiency

For example, Google uses see and rain water as a coolant in their data center in Finland, while Apple and Facebook power and cool their installations with solar and wind energy.

Artificial Intelligence is also used to improve energy efficiency: algorithms diagnose the system and implement changes to get a better PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness). Another way to diminish the energy for cooling is to run the data center on a higher temperature (40 degrees Celsius in stead of 24). New server technology allows the same performance while running in a warmer environment.

To diminish E-waste, a thorough recycling process (for example NOT sending your old material to a dump in a poor African company) of old hardware is the only valid and practical solution at the moment. Recuperation of valuable metal or reuse of certain components should become a common practice to avoid a tsunami of dangerous E-waste and the collateral damage on people and the environment.

It is obvious that there is still a long way to go before we can say that clouds are green. Efforts are made to diminish the environmental impact of data centers, but watching your favourite series on Netflix comes with a cost. Think about that!