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Dam to Digital
Cost of the Cloud

We love to watch those streaming movies. ‘It's a God given right’, right? and we all like to do it, a lot. But there are consequences.

Streaming comes from data centers, now better known as the "Cloud". These are buildings full of computers, called servers, and storage drives much like the one in your computer.

The federal government is studying electric power usage by data centers. A lot of people don’t know that Google and Facebook consume inordinate amounts of electricity to operate their banks of servers that are bundled in stacks in guarded data centers. All data centers put together—the Cloud —uses an astonishing amount of energy because we want data available 24/7. Experts estimate that world-wide, as much as 30 billion watts is consumed to keep all those servers running for our convenience.

It's a Cloud(y) affair. Data centers require a lot of back-up, meaning uninterruptible power sources, because nobody can stand to be without instant retrieval of their ‘stuff’ online. People store digital copies of photos in large format, old emails (a lot of old emails) other old documents and stuff. We save and pass across the internet large videos and even full-length movies. Most users know the drill, and think nothing of the amount of energy that is required to store the data and to send that data to others. People have estimated that the U.S. uses maybe a quarter of this ‘brand’ of energy. We are really addicted to the free retrieval of data of all kinds at any time.

Some Facts:

  • Hydrocarbon-fueled back-up generators are at data centers on standby, along with huge numbers of lead-acid batteries so that no one will ever have their data delayed by any power outage. There are now more than three million data centers of widely varying sizes worldwide.
  • Large data centers can be thought of as polluters because many are in fact commonly cited and fined for breaking regulations. They have been built so rapidly that safeguards have been overlooked. Ferocious competition drives the market. For now, strategies to reduce consumption are not yet commonplace although, for example, Google and Facebook have committed to extensive software and hardware changes to try to reduce use. But efforts like theirs are not yet common.
  • Data centers are full of heat-generating computers that have to be kept cool in order to work. Air conditioning is a huge part of the power consumption.
  • The security arm of the federal government now operates thousands of data centers to collect almost everything that we do digitally and publicly. They are not exactly part of the solution but are thoroughly aware of the problems. But there is no single government agency that is tackling the consumption problem.
  • People tend to store their digital "stuff" online because the Cloud is free or very cheap and is promoted over storing the ‘stuff’on their own machines. Personal computers can be turned off when not in use but data centers can’t. So, power consumption overall goes up.
  • In the last century we were in awe of a megabyte, a million bytes of digital storage. Now terrabytes (a million megabytes), even multi terrabytes of storage, are cheap to own.
  • It can take approximately a thousand terabytes to store a 3D animated movie while it is being created digitally, data that is stored and passed from data center to data center. It is thought that the next big shake up in the business of data and passing data across the Internet will be greater than the Trough of Disillusionment, those tough times we experienced during the Internet crash starting in the late 1990's. It is said that energy consumption is going to be a problem yet greater than that.
  • The industry fears that if they attempt to shut down servers not in use there will be a sudden surge of clients seeking data who will be angry if retrieval is slow. Information-techology people fear losing their jobs. So, servers are left running when they may be providing no data for anybody for long periods of time but just the same they are consuming electricity and creating heat.
  • Sending a message with photographs to a neighbor could involve a trip through hundreds or thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple data centers before the e-mail arrives across the street.
  • Nationwide, digital processing now uses more energy than the traditional paper processes that the digital processes were supposed to replace.
  • When somebody claims that they don't need disk drives anymore because they're going to store their data in the Cloud it should be noted that the disk drives and the flash drives are not going away. The Cloud is merely tons of computers and millions of disk drives. Same <-> Same.

I remember back when I was consulted to help two young guys try to start up a web site offering fly fishing trips. They had their heads in the clouds and talked pretty much only about how much money they were going to make and how fast it was going to explode in profits. They took me out to dinner and talked incessantly about riches and didn't ask me very many questions at all. Oddly enough it was a Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant where the servings are inordinately huge and the leftovers for take home completely filled a large shopping bag. Their cups runnethed over in their minds and on the table.

There was mystique about the new Internet thing like it was the silver bullet and magic. I reminded them that they needed a plan and to create a solid business model just like always, business as usual. They soured on me in an instant. Phooey! I was no fun. I'm reminded of that with the Cloud mystique. It's magic all over again; it's FREE; it's so easy! No, not really. Life goes on and we are still mastered by our physical existence.

We've become conscious of our need to cut our glut of hydrocarbon fuels. We need to get free from our addiction and we need to help reduce violence in the world. These are important matters, to say the least. But the latest fun includes snazzy new computing devices in hand and ability to make "friends" all over the place. But just like driving aimlessly in your car using the Internet as if it is the latest free lunch is misplaced trust. We are again consuming energy as if it was free of charge, no limit to the energy that it takes to create energy.

We should keep that in mind when we desire anything and everything from our computing devices right now without fail. We should learn what we can about making our computer work as efficiently as possible and still get the work done (kind of like we used to).

You can keep your own Cloud at home, in effect, and perform tasks without taxing the data centers. Do keep it at home—the actual gods of the ethers will smile on you. Need to move big amounts of data? Thumb drives are cheap.


Have a comment? >>

Thank you for the most informative article to date! As someone who tries to minimize my carbon footprint,I'd already learned a little about the environmental damage resulting from electronic toys. What I'd appreciate next are more guidelines for ways to avoid using the"cloud." Unfortunately my avoidance of these toys has left me largely ignorant of how my attempts at cyber minimalism actually impact the earth. Please write more for the greens among us who never the less are forced to use computers in order to survive,just as we have been forced to drive automobiles. There obviously is a new corporate-computer complex just as dangerous in its own unique way,as the old military-industrial complex.
From NSA spying to cell phone brain damage, there's a big story out there. One Swiss doctor has warned that cyber smog may be as carcinogenic as petroleum products and their pollution.

Eric Burr
Mazama, WA