I’ve been known to recycle a bit, scrawl grocery lists on the backs of used envelopes, ride a bike every chance I get, and, this time of year, play the wait-as-long-as possible game before cracking the heat. Sometimes I even try to think of something more I could do…
A couple of years ago I was doing some preliminary design work for a data server farm for a social network site. They were proposing constructing 2 buildings simultaneously which is unusual in my industry [we build one, commission it, bring it online, than begin another phase] and I inquired why?
They told me their users were currently uploading 50 million photos a day. I was stunned and building data server farms is what I do. That is a lot of information to store digitally daily and this is the problem, the internet seems clean because its environmental footprint is elsewhere.
Data server farms use 1.5% of our nation’s electricity and they are growing at about 15% a year. Our thirst for online movies, digital books,tablets, pads, and smart phone connectivity is excessive but you can’t cheat physics; these puppies use electricity to process and cool all those bytes. The rate of growth almost doubled in the 5 years from 2006 to 2011. Another doubling due in 5 more, sometime next year our server energy use will pass Sweden’s total power consumption.
Let me skip all the yawn-yawn statistics and back up and ask a question: Where do you think all your stored emails are? They’re not in the hands of tiny file clerks inside your computer — exactly, nor in the library computer, where you can access them. Where are all those Bible-length attachments that nobody read but you’re saving anyway? MP3s? The hot web sites and blogs, BPL’s forum posts? All of Angelina Jolie’s photos? Where do we imagine all this stuff is?
Yep, right outside my construction trailer’s office window, wiggling around in a maze of racks and cables. It’s in that soft, fuzzy place, the Cloud.
A server farm is a sort of pig in a blanket, a refrigerator wrapped around an electric stove going full blast in some cases getting doused with 360,000 gallons of water a day; ordering a book online is equivalent of burning a half pound of coal  and somehow we need to have an energy usage equivalency people can relate to, a kind of internet MPG if you will. We are in the process of uploading our entire society onto the internet and there is a bit of the “environmental justice” where the privileged few stow the unpleasant, unhealthful, and ecologically devastating consequences of their comfortable lifestyles on our fellow planet inhabitants.
My industry is getting greener quickly driven by the increasing impacts of energy costs and water availability but it is not out pacing the need for connectivity. We can’t cheat physics, the law of conservation just does not bend that way, and efficient server density and cooling matrixes still means just more room for servers.
Do we really need 10,000 different photos of Brad Pitt’s buttocks, cute kittens, or my silly rants stored somewhere?
1. Dresher, paraphrase of a report by Mark Mills, cofounder of the Digital Power Group, a Washington D.C.-based technology assessment and forecasting organization, in May 1999 Forbes.