Our data consumption is climbing exponentially, mainly due to:

• ever-increasing broadband speeds
• the dramatic increase in the number of internet-connected devices
• the shift of information and entertainment towards the digital world

According to a recent report from EMC, there were 20 billion devices connected to the internet in 2013.  This rapidly expanding Internet of Things is expected to include 32 billion devices by 2020.  And according to EMC, the ‘digital universe’ is composed of 4.4 trillion gigabytes in 2013 – the equivalent of more than 100 billion iPads.

To the average consumer on Netflix and YouTube, the numbers may not mean much.  And the terms ‘virtual space’ and ‘cloud storage’ do little to convey just how much data is kept constantly and instantly accessible.  So how is all this data kept readily available?

Data centres

Industrial-scale data centres house vast numbers of connected computers acting as servers – somewhat like a typical desktop PC, but used as a storage device for information transmitted through the internet.  These data centres are constantly drawing power; to switch them off would mean an interruption in the services that we’ve come to expect to be instant and constant.

As you can imagine, thousands of computers running all year round demand a serious amount of energy. Google reported its energy use for the first time in 2011. Back then it used 260 million watts across the world – 80-90% of which was eaten by data centres.

The problem for centres is that, even beyond basic operational power needs, they also require vast amounts of cooling to prevent the densely packed computers from overheating. In fact, cooling (via air or water) often accounts for half of the data centre’s energy usage.  This massive power consumption leaves a substantial carbon footprint.  According to the Guardian, the internet releases around 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – equivalent to the total number of fossil fuels burned in Poland in one year.

The rebound effect

It’s highly likely that a considerable amount of the data that comprises the internet is outdated or inessential.  For example, most online email services – such as Microsoft Hotmail – store your messages and their attached videos and pictures forever, regardless of whether you might actually try to access them.  That implies that a considerable portion of the energy used and pollution generated by the internet could be without any real value to the consumer.

Unfortunately, while advances have been made in reducing the cost and increasing the efficiency of the technologies involved, they often only lead to higher consumption.  This is called the ‘rebound effect’.

While owning a highly energy-efficient kettle won’t cause you to start boiling water all day, Virgin’s high-speed fibre-optic connections and 3’s unlimited mobile data packages may lead to you downloading more films and television shows.  In many cases, the rebound effect means that any efficiency measures put in place to reduce pollution and energy consumption will be offset by an increase in usage.

What’s being done to improve it?

For the companies that own and run data centres, improving energy efficiency and shrinking carbon footprints has a big effect on costs.  IBM’s Aquasar system, for example, now conducts the waste heat from their university supercomputer through a network of water tubes to provide warmth to the nearby university buildings. This system consumes up to 40% less energy than a similar machine using traditional air-cooling methods.

Similarly, Apple are seeking renewable energy sources to power their massive data centres, as more and more consumers are storing their data on iCloud.  Among other initiatives, they recently purchased a hydro-electric project in Oregon, temporarily re-routing the flow of water from a nearby canal to a turbine that can power their data storage.

Whatever the future of a rapidly expanding internet brings, one thing is clear.  As consumer demands continue to grow, so must the efforts of data centre owners to find innovative and effective ways of reducing their energy consumption.

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