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Greener data centres will make our digital lives more Earth friendly

In one of those “top five of the year” type stories that appear everywhere at this time of year, this one from Eco-Business, the greening of data centres is included as an important development. This seemed interesting, mainly because we hadn’t thought much about a) data centres or b) how green they currently are. As it turns out, the world’s data centres consume vast quantities of energy—30 billion watts of electricity, or enough to power thirty nuclear power plants by one estimate—and most of the data they store is essentially dead, consisting of our old emails and selfies and other digital junk sitting on some always-on server. Big energy users, big energy wasters. So the greening of data centres is in fact a big deal.

There are tens of thousands of data centres around the world, processing “stupendous” amounts of data that we, every person who uses a device to send a text, pay a bill, download a photo or video, or buy a product at Amazon, set in motion billions of times every day. The amount of data generated, collected and stored is growing exponentially.

Why does this matter? A 2012 New York Times investigation into the information industry found that its image of “sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness” was sharply at odds with reality. The reality is that data centres, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, with companies running their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock regardless of demand. Shockingly, The Times found that data centres waste up to 90 per cent of the electricity they take from the grid. Just 6–12 per cent of the energy consumed is used for performing computations; the rest is just keeping servers idling and ready in case of a surge of activity.

The amount of data generated, collected and stored is growing exponentially.

In addition, data centres use banks of diesel-powered generators and thousands of lead-acid batteries to keep the machines running in case of grid failure. Data centre pollution has become a major problem, with many of them showing up on government registries of top polluters.

When one considers how much data is actually being produced and stored indefinitely, it becomes clear why more and more people in information technology view the whole system as unsustainable. Aside from the billions of emails and texts and photos shared by ordinary consumers every day, organizations like the New York Stock Exchange produce more than 2,000 gigabytes of data every day (1 gigabyte is 1 billion bytes of information), all of which must be stored indefinitely. More than 2 trillion gigabytes of digital information were created in 2012, The Times reported, setting up a race between our ability to create data and our ability to manage it.

This does not take into account the tens of millions of laptops, personal computers and mobile devices that are involved in the running of the world’s data centres, all of them consuming more energy, both as they are used and when they are manufactured.

All of this makes the advice often given to consumers, that they should turn off their computers and other electronic devices when not using them so as to save energy, look pretty meaningless. According to The Times, the “prime directive” at data centres in the US has become keeping the computers running “at all cost,” despite the fact that most of what they are doing is unimportant. Data centres are reportedly among the most preferred customers for utility companies, with their large, steady consumption.

We’re working to create data centres that go beyond carbon neutrality to be even cleaner and lower impact, and then leverage our technology to help accelerate the transition to a greener grid at large. Our goal is ambitious: we want to make the data centre disappear. By optimizing design elements of the data centre with grid in mind, we plan to reduce and eventually eliminate our impact on the ecosystem.

And this is why the greening of data centres is considered a top eco story for 2016. Some of the biggest IT players, including Microsoft, Apple and Google, have begun powering their data centres with clean energy. Microsoft reportedly purchased 110 megawatts of wind-generated electricity in 2016, a first for the company. A Microsoft blog about the move noted that it was a response to carbon pricing, which has changed the way it does business. Even more ambitiously, Microsoft says its ambition is to “make the data centre disappear” by optimizing its design with respect to the grid. Instead of diesel to power the backup generators, Microsoft said it is looking at natural gas.

Google, which reportedly consumed as much energy in 2015 as the city of San Francisco, has also committed to running on 100 per cent renewable energy, mainly wind and solar, while Apple said it would use clean energy to power its iCloud data centres, abandoning coal.

Meanwhile, Amazon Web Services has recently opened several data centres near Montreal, giving the availability of cheap hydro-electric power as a key factor in the decision. The company says it is also looking at sourcing green energy where it can, in efforts to power all of its data centres with renewable energy.

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