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'Heating the planet to cool the server room'


10 December 2009

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Escalating energy demands to power more computer hardware, keep data centres chilled, stream videos, use social networking are creating massive environmental consequences, writes Sandy Ross. To combat climate change, service providers need to publish their data centre ratings or energy consumption online for users to make smart choices.

We've been told about the environmental costs of motoring, industrial farming, long-haul flights, big oil, deforestation in the Amazon and buying sweat-shop produced, throwaway fashion.

sandy.jpg
Image credits: The Guardian/ Sandy Ross

Some of us have taken this advice on board, cycling more, flying less, choosing renewable energy schemes, and seeking out ethical, organic products.

We can make these choices because appliances and cars are rated according to their energy consumption, and Fairtrade or organic products have prominently displayed certification logos.

The information we need to assess whether a service or product is environmentally friendly is either accessible or it's just common sense – hopping on an aeroplane every weekend is hardly sustainable, after all. But there's one particular aspect of most of our everyday lives whose environmental consequences are not so well explained: the internet and online activities.

The United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen this month may create a greater incentive to address these issues.

However, putting together a big picture view of environmental impact is difficult because most of the companies involved are not very enthusiastic about divulging the extent of their energy consumption.

As the range of exciting social networking sites and tools grows larger, so does our use of these technologies. This creates a demand for more energy to power more computer hardware, and to keep data centres nicely chilled. But how much are we heating the planet to cool the server room?

Data centre design and environmental costs are topics usually left for boffins and specialists. Keen readers of IT industry press may have heard that Facebook has now decided to implement in its new facilities power-saving methods that were originally pioneered by Google.

This is good news, and definitely of interest to those of us concerned about climate change, so why wasn't it featured prominently in the company's status updates?

This is the sort of information that helps consumers make informed decisions. It should be easily accessible for all users of Facebook, not just those who happen to be data centre design enthusiasts.

Among IT industry experts and some environmentalists, there is concern about escalating energy demands as a result of increasing use of social networking, streaming video and bandwidth-heavy applications – an issue that Bobbie Johnson and Jack Schofield have highlighted in the Guardian's Technology pages.

Google receives the lion's share of media attention and criticism. This may be unfair, as it has made good on a commitment to reduce energy consumption in its data centres through better design, and promote the development of renewable energy.

But there are hundreds of other companies renting space or running their own facilities, like internet service providers and social-networking and music-streaming sites, and virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft.

The majority of British people use a panoply of websites and widgets – 70% of British households have an internet connection according to the Office of National Statistics – for work, social networking or just staying up to date with the world at large.

But hard data on the energy consumption of online activities is not made available to the average user in a way that is easily accessible and comprehensible. Instead this information is spread out in dribs and drabs on industry blogs.

Without even basic knowledge about environmental impacts, how can we make decisions about sustainable use of these technologies?

There is already a measure to evaluate data centre energy efficiency: the power usage effectiveness metric, developed by The Green Grid, a consortium of technology industry leaders including Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

This measurement system should become the "scores on the doors" of the IT industry. Adding a note about energy efficiency ratings to company information isn't too much to ask. The information is already known to experts. The rest of us should be told too, so we can make smarter choices.

There is also the Green Site certification, which helps environmentally concerned website owners in the United States access renewable energy certificates, credits for purchasing energy generated from renewable sources, and provides a certification badge for participating websites. A scheme of this kind does not yet exist in the United Kingdom, though.

If Facebook, Spotify, Second Life and other service providers published their data centre ratings or energy consumption online, users would be able to make informed decisions. It would also be possible to have a productive public debate about the ecological effects of our online activities.

World energy consumption is increasing, and peak oil is likely to occur sooner than previously anticipated.

We cannot pull the plug on the internet, too many vital services depend upon it – which are a bit more important than Twitter and MySpace – but a demand for detailed and comprehensive data from service providers about their emissions and energy consumption is long overdue. We can't start talking about this problem until we know how big it is, and what the IT industry is doing to fix it.

 
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