Most of us rely on cloud-based email and get our video entertainment from cloud-based streaming services. Big data influences our morning commutes by navigating clogged highways. The advent of big data and cloud storage infrastructure has helped make our lives more efficient and convenient. But along with this tsunami of data storage capacity, companies are increasingly struggling with the environmental fallout of the data center build out.

As technology companies seek to make sense out of mountains of information about our interests and purchasing preferences, the march is on to massively expand data centers to store all this information.

In 2017, data center investment exceeded $20 billion, surpassing all previous years combined, according to a review of last year’s data center development by North American Data Centers, a real estate consultant. In the last five years alone, the size of data centers under construction has surged more than four times to 2.5 million square feet.

Greenpeace has dubbed data centers the “factories of the digital age.” From guzzling energy to a mushrooming physical footprint, the data center expansion has spurred multiple environmental concerns.

Probably the biggest concern is electricity consumption. The energy footprint of the IT sector is already estimated to account for approximately 7 percent of global electricity consumption. By the middle of the next decade, data centers will rank among the largest users of electrical power on the planet, according to Microsoft President Brad Smith.

In addition to powering the actual servers, data centers demand a lot of energy for cooling huge server rooms. With hardware components tightly stacked one on top of the other and arranged in long rows, data warehouses can get unbelievably hot. Even with today’s refined heat dissipation techniques, temperature control can add as much as 70 percent to a data center’s electricity bill, according to Google.

The physical footprint of these server farms counts as another environmental concern. With hundreds of thousands of servers and dozens of power generators, the largest data centers approach one million square feet. In addition to the surging demand for land for the expansion, these massive data centers also generate a disproportionate amount of liquid and solid waste into the surrounding environment.

As environmental watchdogs like Greenpeace have begun ringing the alarm bell, large technology companies and data center operators have already started to seek out and implement green solutions to mitigate the side effects.

Shifting to Renewable Energy

To avoid surging demand for fossil fuels, tech companies are expanding capacity to power their data centers with renewable energy sources including wind and hydroelectricity.

In March, Microsoft signed a 20-year deal with a Singapore solar energy provider to supply their data centers with energy generated from solar panels installed on hundreds of rooftops across Singapore. And late last year, Google agreed to buy three gigawatts of renewable energy from wind and solar stations in Iowa, South Dakota and Oklahoma. Microsoft relies on wind energy to power data centers in Wyoming. And Apple now relies on 100% green energy.

Climate Cooling

A significant portion of data center power bills comes from costs to cool machines. A 2015 study estimated that cooling costs account for 40 percent of electricity usage.

To take advantage of the natural climate to cool off big data server centers, tech infrastructure companies have started to locate new data centers in cold weather countries like Ireland, Finland and Norway. Microsoft is now exploring the viability of building data centers that can be submerged in the sea to save on the extra electricity costs.

Server Efficiency

In addition to renewable energy solutions, data center operators can help reduce energy demands by building green technology into their server infrastructure. Indeed, what if the entire server rig could be miniaturized? What if you could shrink a small library of server stacks down to one server unit the size of a pizza box?

One way to achieve that goal involves relying on denser computer servers—like those enabled with graphic processing units (GPUs)—in addition to traditional CPUs. The difference in density and efficiency at scale between the two processing units is like comparing a mass-transit train to hundreds of cars clogged on a highway.

GPUs are like a train whose energy costs are higher than individual automobiles but are much more efficient when measured in terms of energy consumed per individual commuter. The consumption efficiency (often measured in FLOPS per watt) is what allows data center operators to potentially replace 200 server machines powered by CPUs with just 10 GPU-driven servers, saving physical footprint and cutting down on waste.

Perhaps it’s time to consider not only the energy usage, but also the space the machine takes up. For that purpose, Sun Microsystems has devised a metric called SWaP, defined as Performance / (Space * Power). This metric takes into account the higher power density and efficiency of smaller machines, and penalizes larger and more power hungry machines with a lower score.

Time for Environmental Standards?

The cloud has become an elegant computing solution for everyone from individual users to tech juggernauts. But even as we off-load all of our data and computing power, we all need to be more mindful that the mushrooming virtual universe comes with a real price in our everyday physical world.

While tech giants including Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google have started to take the lead on ensuring environmentally conscious data centers, it might be time to consider ways to adopt standards that will serve as a guidepost for the industry.

Environmental groups have already instituted data center certification to promote compliance. It seems that the next step would be for data center leaders to collaborate on and institute a set of standards. Eventually, governmental agencies should play a role in monitoring this growing challenge.

If we don’t want the digital world of tomorrow to disrupt our environment, both the public and private sector need to find a way to establish standards to ensure our clouds turn green, rather than a dark shade of grey or black.

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