The internet is big, and it’s growing bigger…
This is what happens on the internet every 60 seconds, and it is but a tiny snapshot of everything that happens.
Our digital lives are becoming increasingly dependent on this network, but this is having an increasing physical impact too. Alongside the visible infrastructure that crisscross the surface of our planet, an invisible digital infrastructure is growing in parallel, through the air, under the oceans and beneath our feet.
In this article we will explore some of the increasing impacts of our digital lives, the future challenges they pose, and the solutions that might address them.
Hidden in basements, industrial parks and far-away places are the data centres that power our digital lives.
There are essentially two types of data centre:
- Enterprise data centres generally privately owned and operated by a single organisation. This could range from a server room in an office to a large banking data centre.
- Co-location data centres are larger commercial facilities that rent out their space, power, and network connections for other organisations’ own hardware. A sub-set of this are Managed Service Providers (MSP) who own the building and hardware to sell their services, often hosting cloud computing applications. The largest ‘hyper-scale’ data centres are run by the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple, and form the backbone of everyday digital services.
To the untrained eye, they are simply rows of computers (servers) stacked in an industrial space. To the trained eye, these are critical assets protected from human and environmental threats by multiple layers of security, and guaranteed by rooms of batteries and generators to stay online for days if the power ever went out. When data centres host our global communications, our financial industry and our governments, down time is not an option (i).
But what is the cost of being online 24/7?
Data centres consume a lot of electricity. The average EU co-location facility will consume the equivalent electricity of 2,100(ii) UK households, and there are an estimated
- 2,000 co-location
- 60,000 enterprise
- 150 managed service provider
data centres in Europe (iii). By 2020, these will consume more electricity than the combined consumption of all the households in the UK (iv).
Some projections show that combined global Information Communication Technology (ICT), which includes data centres, networks, consumer devices and their manufacture will consume a fifth of world electricity by 2030… and generating electricity almost always means burning fossil fuel.
By 2020, the combined annual carbon emissions of EU data centres will be around 26 million tonnes(v), equivalent to approximately 11 million economy class return flight seats from London to New York (vi). Unsurprisingly, some think that global emissions from ICT are already exceeding global aviation emissions (vii).
So why is this growing so quickly?
For some government services, the average [financial] cost of a digital transaction is almost 20 times lower than the cost of a telephone transaction, about 30 times lower than the cost of postal transaction and about 50 times lower than a face-to-face transaction (viii).
Digital Efficiency Report – Gov.uk
The cost of doing things online offsets the greater cost of carrying out tasks physically, and the technology that allows this has fallen drastically in price as well (ix).
Cheaper tech means more devices, but not only are there more, they are all talking to each other. Since its inception in 2009, the Internet of Things (IoT) has exploded in volume and complexity. Accessories, appliances, vehicles and smart buildings are just a few of the things that that already comprise the billions of devices worldwide. By 2020, there may be 6 connected devices for every person on this planet(x), all requiring ever faster, reliable and capable networking capabilities from the internet.
With this level of sustained growth, what can be done to prevent our energy consumption spiralling out of control?
Efficient data centres
Within a data centre, the biggest energy consumers are the servers and building services. Since reducing consumption reduces cost, the issue of energy efficiency in data centres is a major priority for operators.
New servers are constantly being developed by manufacturers providing more processing for less power, and older servers are typically replaced when the life cycle cost of keeping older servers outweighs the cost of replacing them(xi).
Like a car idling at a junction, servers still use electricity when idle (as much as 50% of peak power(xii)) so a working server is an efficient one. This is very difficult to manage with sporadic demand however, and average server utilisation (% time spent working) can be very low. To combat this, server virtualisation can be applied where many services are run on a few machines to ensure that idle time is minimised.
A room full of servers generates a lot of heat. Some data centres may use as much electricity cooling their servers as the servers use themselves, so it is equally important to have efficient cooling, which can be achieved by:
- Separating cold intake air and hot exhaust air inside a data centre to prevent recirculation and mixing
- Using a water based cooling system
- Using filtered fresh outside air when temperatures are cool enough (free cooling)New technology such as liquid cooling (where servers are submerged in liquid coolant) and even underwater data centres that expel heat directly into the ocean(xiii) are exploring more radical ways to deal with the heat problem. With such methods, efficient data centres may only use a fraction of the energy normally needed for cooling
Waste heat usually goes straight outside… but it has also been used to heat homes, swimming pools and greenhouses (xiv). Due to the limitations of piping it over long distances, many of these projects have tapped into existing district heat networks or were used for adjacent buildings. As these networks develop, so more opportunities will arise for the reuse of waste heat.
A cleaner grid
Reducing energy consumption is well and good, but until grid electricity is totally renewable data centres will always leave a large carbon footprint. Powering one with totally renewable energy right now means either placing it near an abundant supply, or building it yourself.
Facebook is one company doing both. It’s newest data centre in Sweden is powered by local hydroelectricity, and uses abundant free cooling throughout its operation(xv). In the US where the grid is not so clean they have committed to building enough renewable capacity to match all current and future energy consumption by 2020(xvi).
This is no small undertaking. Topaz Farm in California is currently the
world’s largest solar farm, generating 550 megawatts and comprising of 9 million solar panels stretching over an area of 9.5 square miles(xvii). For Facebook to meet its renewables commitment of 3,000 megawatts, they would need to build the equivalent of six of these.
The reality is that few operators can choose where to build their data centres, and fewer still have the means to build enough capacity to generate a meaningful contribution. However, as renewable energy continues to become more competitive, buying clean energy on a large scale is an increasingly sound business choice(xviii) which will help to drive further growth in this sector.
Towards a greener internet
There is no doubt that digital services have transformed our world, and have offset countless physical journeys and transactions. It is vital however, that the burden of our impacts is not simply shifted from one arena to another.
It might seem that the means to influence our digital future and its impact on our planet lies solely in the hands of corporations. There are however, informed decisions we can make that could collectively make a difference.
Whether it is for security, control or response time, some of what we do as consumers or organisations will always need to be local. But by moving what we can into the cloud we are moving away from potentially under-utilised, ageing and inefficient machines into some of the most efficient data centres available.
Even then, some clouds are cleaner than others. Greenpeace’s ‘Click Clean’ Report(xix) gives us a league table of the best and the rest when it comes to digital services powered by green energy. Choosing who’s services we use for our business, communication and entertainment gives each of us a say in how the internet will continue to grow.
As the ubiquity of digital communication and consumption makes our daily lives ever more distracted however, perhaps the most fundamental control we have over our digital lives is best summarised by industrial designer Dieter Rams(xx):
“Less, but better”