Peak Oil Perspectives
Peak Oil Perspectives

Why the data cloud’s bad for you

By Roger Diamond

Hardly a day goes by without finding myself rained on by some aspect of cloud computing, even if it is just a profit driven promotion of this shift in information storage. People will make all manner of promises about how the cloud is going to make your life better and change the world forever. All I am going to do is focus on the energy involved in making and keeping this cloud world alive.

To summarise the cloud, or cloud computing, in one line goes something like this: because the internet is now so pervasive and can transmit so much data and data banks can store so much information, it is possible to keep information on a server and then access it from anywhere in the world that has an internet connection. If you want to find out more about how the cloud works or the pros and cons of this method of computing, read elsewhere.

The cloud then requires data servers to exist somewhere, to be switched on at all times and to be connected to the internet, which itself has a whole bunch of switching and hub gear to allow your data to get to and from this server and your terminal. All of this requires energy. Not only do servers use substantial wattages to keep running, but they do not last terribly long. The lifetime of an average server is a mere few years – we could be pessimistic and say 2 or 3 years, extremely optimistic and say 10 years (with various components being replaced or upgraded, but the machine remaining largely intact) or realistic and say around 5 years. There is therefore a massive energy requirement in building and maintaining a cloud computing centre, also known as a data centre, without even considering the daily electricity consumption in running it.

Compare this with a printed book. The book lasts many years and requires no energy to run. In favour of the cloud is the immense amount of information that can be stored, in comparison to one book. The contents of an entire library shelf can be stored on one server, so it may well have a smaller energy and resource bill to build that first server. But where the server crashes and dies in a few years’ time, the shelf of library books remains intact. The energy required to maintain and run a paper library is minimal, compared to a data centre.

People may argue that driving to a library uses fuel, whilst the internet can be accessed from your desktop. This is true, but ignores the fact that one can schedule a visit to the library when doing other errands, such as shopping or going to work. Reading a book also requires no energy, whilst all screens use energy to be on.

People may argue that for certain publication types, such as journals or magazines, the ability to access only the articles you need saves on printing of a whole monthly issue when you are interested in only one item. Indeed, arguments like this do hold water and can reduce overall environmental impact. On the other hand though, the rate of generation of material has mushroomed since the ability of any internet connected person to upload material and now there is orders of magnitude more material on the internet than in hard copy (such as this piece of writing). Storage of all this stuff means energy will be used. In that sense, this post is hypocritical, only contributing to the vast volume of material on the internet.

My simple point is that, in spite of claims to the contrary, computers, the internet and the cloud, in that order, have and will continue to lead to increases in energy consumption. This is bad, given that the energy our society uses is largely from a finite source, fossil fuels, and has secondary environmental impacts we know are bad for the earth.

The solution? New technology has its place and it should be for us to use judiciously, such that we reap the benefits and minimize the pain. How? Raise energy, and other resource prices to incorporate real costs, the full environmental basket of externalities, so that large energy users, such as data centres, cost more to run, need to charge higher prices and therefore are not loaded with terabytes of baby photos, personal blogs and other inane information.

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    • Dave Harris

      One of the most idiotic articles ever!
      Arguing why paper based books are better than cloud computing is similar to resorting to tin cans and string instead of the phone! LOL

    • Stephen Browne

      Your argument holds no water – do you know how many servers a cloud warehouse eliminates? The whole point is you buy server space somewhere else so you don’t have to. My mind boggles at your reasoning. And unfortunately while books may seem wonderfully romantic to you (and I love them as well), they are not very good at backing up vital data on a daily basis.

      ‘Data’ is no longer just the written word; there is a massive electronic component to our world that you have simply ignored. The fact you posted this blog on a site that is almost certainly backed up in a cloud somewhere just about summarizes everything that is wrong with your argument.

    • Arnold Smit

      I think you are playing around with a relevant question, but your reasoning needs a lot more research and factual substantiation before your argument will be convincing.

    • Jeremy

      Inane article, idiotic conclusions, poorly premised and unresearched. “Thought Leader” – what rubbish.

    • Hot, hot, hot

      Actually , Roger makes a solid point – about the amount of energy that is required. it is increasing exponentially. In fact, it is a point one genuine concern in the IT industry – do some reading of the key players strategies (e.g. Gartner). It also runs contra the global focus on sustainability. I have a very simple philosophy though. Reality will dictate and circumscribe.

    • peter nel

      As per Hot, hot, hot, I agree that reality will dictate and circumscribe, and purely writing off any argument or discussion as being inane,idiotic, poorly premised and unresearched or ‘ rubbish ‘, as per Jeremy, is laughable.

      Perhaps it is true that we are fast becoming so clever that we are busy outsmarting ourselves? Food for thought without simply forwarding a premise that too can be ” simply rubbished”

    • LC

      Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) said “If intuition conflicts with facts the facts win, always”. Is suppose the fact that Amazon’s CEO said that might be problematical. This article is based on intuition without any researched facts.

      There are lots of trade-offs here, such as the amount of water and energy used to plant forests for paper vs the amount of people who can read a book simultaneously (one) and the amount of people who can read a book digitally at the same time (infinite). A digital book only comes into existence (and uses energy) when it is being read, the rest of the time it is lying dormant on a hard disk platter, while the same can be said for a paper book, the amount of physical resources the digital book takes up (a could of square micrometers on a disk platter) is zero in comparison to the book.

      The IT industry is going through a lot of motions to reduce energy use at the moment, there is a lot of work and research in that field.

      Lastly, all screens do not need energy to stay on. Ebook screens (like on a amazon kindle) uses energy to CHANGE since the screen runs with little particles of ink, it is not illuminated. My Kindle’s batteries last forever.

    • Lennon

      I might agree with the author, but for vastly different reasons.

      I prefer books purely because I can’t stand reading entire chapters from a computer screen (plus comics just aren’t the same in digital format).

      I don’t much care for dumping my files into cloud-based storage since…. they’re my files and I don’t want anyone else getting access to them.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I prefer books because I can read them in bed or on the beach; can annote and cross reference them; can mark the indexes etc etc

    • Rich

      With e resources I have an issue with ownership. Physical matter can be archived and is yours forever. This becomes an issue withe resources…

    • Rich

      And this article is ill informed?
      Moore’s Law: Number of transistors placed on an integrated circuit board doubles every two years – true but overtaken by…
      Koomey’s Law: For those who were so quick to dis this article I will spell it out. “It is the proven computing law for the modern age where wattage trumps all. The amount of computing power per joule (let’s just say watt) doubles every one and a half years”.
      Keep shoveling that coal so your computer screen stays bright. I prefer to read by candle then.

    • Chris Martin

      What I find remarkable is the extent to which computer systems seem to go out of their way to mimic the reality they replace. For instance an ebook or document (this page, for that matter) displays as dark print on a light background, mimicking a very ancient tradition of ink on paper.

      That tradition was entirely logical within its own context, but wouldn’t it be more sensible for computers to display light print on a dark background? I’m sure it would be more restful on the eye, and no doubt use less electricity.

    • Nguni

      I agree with the author, but for different reasons. Cloud computing brings up issues of data privacy and Big Brother. The energy wastage of data centers is being worked on continuously, that will become minimal. If you only have time to read at night or early morning (as I do) then book reading also uses energy..

    • Rich

      Nguni, not many people sit in the dark…energy will be used I’d dark whether you read or not.

    • nguni

      @ Rich. True of course, unless one is only staying up to read, alone. I can read on my iPad in the dark, but prefer dimmed background lighting.

    • Rory Short

      Roger has made a point but where are the facts and figures to support it?