HOW DIRTY IS YOUR DATA?

Since the cloud makes our digital consumption invisible, we fail to recognize that all those hours spent on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix, are destroying our environment.

When I started my start-up this summer I realized I needed to store somewhere the data generated on my mobile application. I looked around my room and there was no space for a piece of hardware so I decide to store my data on the cloud. There were several companies offering cloud computing. After a quick research I bought cloud storage from Amazon Web Services simply because it offered a low price. Like many other users I wasn’t worried about my data being stored on the cloud as long as it was accessible and protected. Looking outside of the window at the clear blue sky I was wondering on which invisible cloud was my data sitting.

Behind the ‘cloud’ are the power hungry data centers that use dirty energy to store the enormous amount of data we produce. Data centers are the factories of the 21st Century. They are large buildings full of servers, usually located out of the public eye. The US hosts about 40% of the world’s data servers.[1] Data centers currently consume more than 3% of US electricity and 1.5%-2% of all global electricity, growing at a rate of 12% every year.[2] They use cheap dirty coal power to run the servers. Since the cloud makes our digital consumption invisible, we fail to recognize that all those hours spent on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix, are destroying our environment. [3]

Even though some of the largest IT companies have started powering the data with clean, renewable energy, there are still many that fail to recognize this responsibility. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is one of them. AWS, Amazon’s cloud-computing platform, generated $2.57 billion revenue in 2015.[4] Thanks to the high margins this cloud service is the biggest source of profits for Amazon. In 2015, the profits from AWS represented 56% of Amazon’s operating income.[5] AWS largest data center is located in northern Virginia where it hosts Amazon’s own online content as well as data from countless other customers including Netflix.[6] Storing huge amounts of data consumes a lot of energy, which in the case of Amazon is powered by dirty coal.

So what actually happens when I decide to store my data on the AWS cloud? The data generated on my application is stored on one of the many servers located in the Virginia data center.  One server usually stores data from many different users. Once the machine is full the data is sent to a new server. AWS has hundreds of servers ready to serve the customers demand. To ensure that I will be able to access my data at any given time, it also gets stored on a second server called ‘Backup’. These two machines are powered by different power supplies so if one fails the other keeps operating.[7]  Because the servers are in constant use they create a lot of heat. ASW uses powerful cooling systems that maintain a suitable temperature in the room. Backing up the data, powering and cooling it requires a vast amount of energy.

 

cloud-viki-copy

 

By choosing green energy companies like Amazon have the power to reduce the carbon footprint But renewable energy comes at a cost. Because green energy is expensive Amazon will have to make several decisions and trade-offs. First, they will need to decide what source of energy to use. Amazon could use wind, solar or a new innovative source of energy instead of coal. Second, Amazon has a choice to have a renewable energy source on site or purchase it directly from an external energy company. This decision depends on whether they will find the right supplier close to their sight in Virginia. Third, Amazon can decide to move its data center offshore to a cheaper location. They will have to evaluate this option carefully as relocating the data center to a developing country reduces the control of the data and increases the chance of data theft. Finally, Amazon could decide to pass the costs to us, consumers, who contribute to the energy waste by producing the ‘dirty’ data. But are we going to pay for something we thought was invisible?

 

Sources

[1] “How Dirty Is Your Data.” Greenpeace International Apr. 2014: n. pag 36. Print

[2] “How Dirty Is Your Data.” Greenpeace International Apr. 2014: n. pag 36. Print

[3] “How Dirty Is Your Data.” Greenpeace International Apr. 2014: n. pag 36. Print

[4] Wingfield, Nick. “Amazon’s Cloud Business Lifts Its Profit to a Record.” The New York Times, 28 Apr. 2016. Web

[5] Wingfield, Nick. “Amazon’s Cloud Business Lifts Its Profit to a Record.” The New York Times, 28 Apr. 2016. Web.

[6] Walsh, Bryan. “Your Data Is Dirty: The Carbon Price of Cloud Computing.” TIME, 2 Apr. 2014. Web.

[7] Jonathan Strickland “How Cloud Storage Works.” HowStuffWorks.com, 30 Apr. 2008, Web.

The picture after paragraph 4 is own creation.

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6 thoughts on “HOW DIRTY IS YOUR DATA?

  1. I had no idea that data centers used so much energy! Since they consume about 3% of global energy, I wanted to determine the percent of the global GDP that went through data centers or business that operated online (and thus would rely on data centers). The number I got to was roughly 2% (using this source: http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/real-time-ecommerce/499958, and a Global GDP of $77 trillion), but that seemed low; perhaps it is still just my disbelief that online business could be proportionally less energy efficient than other industries.

    I’d be curious to see if anyone else is able to generate different values for the amount of revenue generation that these data centers/cloud-based businesses are responsible for, and how that might reflect on the overall efficiency of the business. Bottom line is that I can’t help but believe that an online business (a store for example) uses more energy than it’s brick and mortar counterpart.

    1. This is a great question, I haven’t thought about the costs of an online store versus a physical store before. I would like to see some cost analysis on this. My assumption would be a few flagship stores have a lower utility cost than a an online shop. Once the brand grows and more stores open up around the country the energy bill will go up so the online shop might be a less harmful option for the environment. A lot of IT companies argue that having a shared data center is more efficient than letting each company to have their own in-house data center. I agree with that. Their example is similar to an department store which keeps many brands under one house and pays one combined utility bill.

  2. This has always amazed me, especially given that data centers are the ideal utility customers with long term fixed power needs and could likely drive a hard bargain with local utilities to ensure the cleanliness of their power supply. I think AWS, with its relentless focus on cost, may be later than most IT providers to realize the need to be good stewards of the environment, even if it costs a little more.

  3. This is an interesting topic because I don’t think many people realize that “the cloud” is actually a set of massive server farms that require a lot of energy to run (and to keep cool.) Essentially, the cloud is just a lot of computers clustered together.

    What do you think could incentivize Amazon to make their data centers more energy efficient? Unlike some companies (car companies, oil companies, etc) that clearly impact the environment, I do not think that many people are aware of the footprint caused by data centers. Do you believe there is a way to put social pressure on Amazon to try to be more energy efficient.

    Additionally, I’m aware of some companies trying to be more energy efficient with their data centers. For example, Facebook has a data center in Sweden in order to help reduce the costs required to cool down the physical servers. Do you know of any other examples like this? Could a company like Amazon (which has a larger data center footprint that Facebook) could follow similar techniques?

    1. I think in the future more and more companies will open their data centers in developing countries which will not solve the situation, it will shift the pollution to another region. Because IT is a relatively new industry and “cloud” is a new concept the companies are starting to realize only now how much damage they are causing to the environment. Amazon has been silent for a very long time about their operating process in their data centers. Once the process becomes more transparent there will be more pressure on Amazon to follow the trend of Facebook, Google etc to become a more eco-friendly, sustainable company.

  4. Really cool post – like Alec, I don’t think many people truly consider all the IT infrastructure that supports the average Netflix-binge session…

    The one solution that seems immediately appealing is the idea of offshoring datacenters to take advantage of lower cost power sources (e.g., iceland). The challenge here seems to be twofold–first, will consumers be willing to accept the incremental latency in their applications? Is there a way to solve this problem by storing the most important types of content closer to the consumer (sort of like the Akamai Content-delivery-network model)?

    Second, I wonder if regulation poses an unnecessary roadblock to offshoring data centers. For instance, EU data protection laws require that personal data is stored locally within the EU (or in third country datacenters that comply with EU standards – but few cloud providers meet these standards: https://www.skyhighnetworks.com/cloud-security-blog/74-of-cloud-services-do-not-meet-european-data-residency-requirements/).

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