Tech // Tech

The environment’s black Cloud

Silicon Valley's 'tech solutions of tomorrow' are less environmentally friendly than you think.

A leaked photo of a Google server farm.

Cloud solutions are often marketed alongside vague taglines such as “the Internet of things” and “big data”. Despite being advertised with buzzwords that sound like they’re from a 30 Rock sketch, it is undeniable that cloud computing has made our lives a hell of a lot easier. From storing data in applications such as Google Drive and DropBox, to hosting almost every website on the Internet, cloud computing has revolutionised our digital lives.

The fact is, the convenience of your group assignment’s shared Google doc comes at a cost to the environment. Every time you use cloud computing platforms like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Google Photos you’re contributing to the fastest growing drain on electricity in the world. Each abandoned or duplicated file left in cloud storage takes up space in a physical data centre.

People tend to see the Internet a utility transcendent of physical space or don’t think about it long enough to realise that it has a real life location. Or more accurately, locations. Data centres all over the world host everything from Netflix and Facebook to top secret government information. Data centres are essentially gigantic communal hard drives run by a handful of cloud service providers such as IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft.

These data centres range in size from a single room to a full-scale industrial factory. Some centre hubs can dominate the economies and infrastructure of entire cities, such as the “Cloud Cities” of Wuxi and Langfang in China.

Not so shockingly, running the entire Internet uses vast amounts of electricity – so much so that companies such as Google use more energy per year than the entire country of Turkey. A 2013 study from the Digital Power Group concerning global Informations and Communications Technology (ICT), which in this case refers to the physical infrastructure that supports the Cloud, estimated that 10 per cent of global electricity was used to power ICT ecosystems, of which data centres were the major consumer. At the time that was more electricity per year than Germany and Japan combined.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) currently controls 45 per cent of the global market share for Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) computing, which is more than their three main competitors, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google, put together. Unlike Google, which will run their data centres on 100 per cent renewable energy by the end of 2017, AWS currently sources only 40 per cent of its energy from renewables. Given that AWS runs 42 ‘availability zones’ (with one or more data centres per zone), this statistic is alarming low.

The energy consumption of data centres has become so big that in 2015 Microsoft invested millions in building one underwater to save on the consumptions associated with physically cooling the centres and to experiment with using tidal energy as a form of renewable power. Although new technology like this is exciting, one could easily imagine it having it having a disastrous impact on its surrounding ecosystems.

Realistically, we can’t boycott the cloud services. Even if you were to cut out Netflix or frivolous Google searches, you’ll need to use EFTPOS, send a text or read the news. What we can do is be informed; know where these companies are sourcing their energy from and how much they’re consuming. Boycott companies that don’t have realistic green initiatives. Ensure our government invests in green energy so that local data centres are less likely to churn through coal. And delete all those abandoned Google Docs sitting in your Drive.