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.