The digital ‘cloud’ that stores our data may be invisible to see, but the sight of one of the world’s largest purpose-built data centres tells a different story.
It expands the size of a football field and has hundreds upon thousands of servers inside that are blasted by cooling around the clock to keep them from melting. Even in off-peak times, the servers are kept running at maximum capacity in case of a surge or crash.
There’s no doubt that our digital footprint is expanding rapidly every day, and so too its impact. Whether it’s adding photos online, sending emails, watching a film, or streaming your favourite song on Spotify. Data is being created, sent and stored at unprecedented rates.
As businesses and individuals amass more and more data, it’s important to ask: how can we make our digital footprint environmentally sustainable?
So, what is ‘the cloud’?
The digital cloud describes data-processing operations that are outsourced to server farms, instead of being powered on-site. These range from websites to digital storage space and individual documents.
Alongside data increase is the inevitable increase of power supply demand. While data centres and servers are becoming more energy efficient, there will always be a huge demand for power consumption, accompanied by unavoidable heat and CO2 emission impacts on the environment. The centres require a large amount of cooling to operate. As an example, the Australian Government spend about $170 million annually on electricity for its data centres, of which ICT uses only $70 million. The cooling for the ICT system uses the remainder.
IT-related services worldwide now account for 2% of all global carbon emissions. That’s roughly on par with the aviation sector, meaning all those emails and videos are equivalent to 747s rumbling for take-off.
Addressing the problem
Many organisations are implementing practices to change the way they consume and manage energy. IT and large technology companies, like Apple and Facebook, are going a step further and building data centres that are entirely self-sustaining. These developments include renewable power generation, utilising heat waste for office heating, improving space, design and lighting through raised floors and airflow direction and safely powering down servers in step with demand, or by completely eliminating idle altogether. There is increasing pressure for organisations to measure, monitor and benchmark current energy use and temperatures for future improvements, including adhering to standard performance metrics and codes, such as the one recently developed in Europe for the Energy Efficiency in Data Centres.
Solutions for smaller organisations
While there are many solutions, organisations will need to look at scalability. Smaller organisations might not have the money or technology to use renewable energies. Solutions might include multi-tenancy, where centres are shared between companies to reduce in-house energy wastage and allow for greater utilisation of servers.
Another way smaller organisations can improve their footprint is by moving all or part of their current system to the cloud, using the right provider. The ‘cloud’ can reduce real estate footprint, operating costs and overall greenhouse gas emissions. Outsourced data centres are typically well designed and resource efficient, or services such as Dropbox, provide an affordable data storage service.
As consumers, it’s important to evaluate our data usage and habits too. Perhaps it’s one too many binges on Netflix - or we’re simply holding on to too many old emails. Changing our consumption can go a long way to reduce the need for data being held in servers half-way across the world.