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Guilty of Netflix Binging? New Research Sheds Light on Climate Impact of Cloud Computing

Researchers have revealed that the current increase in data consumption has little climate impact contrary to previous expectations. The paper released in the Science Journal shows that energy consumption by data centers has remained relatively low at about 1% of global energy consumption. The reason for this outcome is that despite the increase in cloud computing demands, data center efficiency outpaced the rate of growth in data consumption. The study claims to be the most detailed analysis yet to address the climatic effects of digital computing.

Previous assumptions

A research in 2017 by Dr. Anders Andrae, an information systems sustainability analyst at Huawei, estimated that data centers’ emission levels could overtake those of the aviation and shipping industries. Dr. Andrae predicted that ICT industry would consume 20% of all electricity as well contribute to 5.5% of all carbon emissions by 2025. According to a 2018 climate impact Google estimate, conducting an online search and emailing for one month had the same climate impact as driving a car for one mile. However, according to Eric Masanet, the head of engineering at Northwestern University and the study’s lead authors of the paper, the previous extreme estimates relied on outdated calculations on server efficiency.

Current climate impact of cloud computing power consumption

Masanet’s paper named “Recalibrating Global Data Center Energy-Use Estimates,” indicated that although the demand for data has increased by 550% due to cloud computing, power energy demands grew by only 6%. This translates to an efficiency gain of 20% per year. The trends have been a result of an increase in the energy efficiency of servers, shift towards hyperscale data centers, and cloud computing. Hyperscale data centers work better compared to smaller ones due to economies of scale. The study analyzed the amount of power used in data transfer as well as storage. It did not include the amount of energy required by end-user devices such as smartphones and computers used in the consumption of the information.

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Future trends

While improvement in energy efficiency has allowed the IT industry to mitigate the effects of power consumption, experts warn that the industry might be reaching its limit. When this happens, future energy demands in cloud computing will outweigh any power consumption savings realized by improvements in the energy efficiency of the data centers. Dale Sartor, a data center engineer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, noted that hyperscale data centers are almost as efficient as they can be. The result is that virtually all the power consumption is used in calculations. This means that there might be no more power to save. According to Masanet, the industry has a small window of 3-5 years before this happens during the next doubling of data demand. The small window will buy more time to capitalize on efficiency gains before the need for data outpaces any efficiency gains. However, and Dr. Andrae disagrees with Masanet’s prediction and says the event is likely to happen sooner. Andrae indicates that the growth in emerging technologies such as AI and facial recognition will push us to reach the limit much earlier than expected. Howie Huang, an expert in data-intensive computing at George Washington University, agrees with Andrae’s observations.

Masanet also overlooked the energy consumption of data centers used in mining cryptocurrencies. For such cloud computing facilities, their climate impact is hard to offset by increasing energy efficiency due to their increasing computational complexity, which offsets any efficiency gains so realized. However, Masanet points out that cloud computing is more environmentally friendly because the physical services it replaces, for example, driving to a movie, have more adverse climate impacts.

Although Masanet’s report paints a positive picture, we should treat these figures with cautious optimism. Like many other areas such as transportation, cloud computing climate impact is becoming hard to mitigate. Like many other industries, the IT industry must, therefore, find ways to minimize the climate impact of its activities.

Overcoming energy efficiency limits in cloud computing devices

Major players in the industry are looking for more ways to mitigate the anticipated climate impact of the increasing demand for data. Microsoft claimed that it is on track to powering 60% of its cloud computing data centers on renewable energy. Similarly, Google announced that plans are underway to build a $1 billion solar farm in Nevada. Additionally, the tech giant implemented an innovative cooling system by pumping seawater in Finland’s cloud computing facilities. Renewable energy might, therefore, be the last resort to the increasing climate impact of cloud computing.

 

Staff Correspondent at CPO Magazine
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