Should Businesses Consider Internet Usage in their Carbon Footprint?

The incredible increase in internet usage has required the world to build ever more energy-hungry data centres, so should businesses account for their data usage?


Maiden, Apple’s largest data center, needs up to 20 MW of power

There are over 500,000 cloud-based data centres in the world, filled with millions of servers to enable the modern miracles of browsing, emailing, tweeting and ‘liking’ to take place.

But these servers get hot, very hot, and therefore need a lot of cooling, a problem not helped by many data centres being located in deserts, such as NASA’s ‘Dark Star’ in Utah.

In fact this is one of the reasons why Facebook built its latest data centre on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

In total the world’s data centres require around 31GW of power, account for 2% of global energy consumption and emit 300 million tonnes CO2 per year – huge figures for something we don’t even see!

While Apple’s pledge to power its data centres with 100% renewable energy is of course a welcome improvement, the biggest problem lies in the inefficiency of the servers themselves, with some of the oldest equipment consuming 100% power even if at 10% processing capacity.

Not only has ‘underutilization’ been described as the greatest source of waste and inefficiency in computing, but no one even knows exactly how bad the problem is.

Businesses Take Note

For most service sectors, like finance, information services, media and telecoms, data centres are a business’s number-one source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the negative press about 3rd party data centers – increasingly described as ‘the Cloud’ – the general consensus is that they are still a more environmentally friendly option than operating your own servers.

As a recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicates, if all US office workers moved to the Cloud then total energy use from information technology could be cut by 87%.

However, as one experienced consultant has pointed out, swapping those inefficient, energy-sucking servers for the Cloud could cost a small business of 20 workers as much as $24,000/year, which is why many still avoid Cloud hosts like Amazon, Microsoft and Rackspace.

For a company like amee, where big data is at the core of what we do, the Cloud can cost several thousand dollars per month.

There is no definitive answer as to whether a company should specifically account for the carbon emissions of its data usage and there is little discussion about this on the internet.

To some extent it depends on how thorough a business wants to be when understanding and reporting its carbon footprint and a reasonable suggestion would be that only intensive data users should consider calculating their ‘internet footprint’.

Still, with more people spending more time on the internet than ever before, the total amount of energy consumed by data centres is certain to increase. That’s a problem we’re all part of, businesses included.  

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