These issues are not just the problem of the companies that create and run the data centers, but also of the surrounding communities and the planet as a whole.
It is estimated that data centers in the U.S. consumed 61 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2006, costing around $4.5 billion [source: Uddin], and 76 billion kilowatt hours in 2010 [source: Glanz]. They reportedly account for 1 to 2 percent of electricity consumption worldwide [sources: Levy, Masanet]. By some accounts, some data centers waste upwards of 90 percent of the power they consume due to running 24/7 at full capacity [source: Glanz]. This massive consumption is bound to take a toll on the environment.
One research firm found that the information and communication technology industry accounted for around 2 percent of CO2 emissions worldwide [source: Uddin]. And some data center generators emit air-polluting exhaust that often enough fails to meet clean air regulations.
Changes in this industry are not easy to dictate as there isn't a government agency specifically tasked with tracking data centers. But a lot of the big players, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and eBay, are making huge strides toward reducing the resource consumption of their centers, including creating energy efficient designs, using local resources wisely, striving for carbon neutrality and in some cases generating power using greener sources like natural gas, solar energy or hydropower.
There's constant innovation toward efficiency, environmental friendliness, cost effectiveness and ease of deployment. And these days, with Google's newfound openness on its data center designs and projects like Facebook's Open Compute, through which they share hardware designs with the public, the data center superpowers are disclosing some of their innovations so that smaller data centers (and the rest of us) might reap the benefits.
It's hard to estimate the full impact of our online existence, since our own computers and the other networks that get our information to and from the data centers have to be added into the equation. But without attention to energy efficiency and sustainability of the largest and most obvious culprits, the cloud might keep on generating clouds of pollutants and greenhouse gases.
Despite any pitfalls, data centers are not going anywhere. Our desire for constant and instant access to information and media content, for sharing of large amounts of data, for moving things off of our own machines and onto the cloud for access from multiple devices, and for perpetual storage of e-mail, photos and other digital data will keep them around. And they will likely pave the way to an even more wired future.
Author's Note: How Data Centers Work
I'm amazed at the sheer size and scope of the huge data centers that make our wired world what it is today. I'm also grateful for them, since I'm online most of the time. It was my dream 20 years ago to be able to choose what, when and where I watched shows without being stuck at home at certain times of night. I didn't even imagine the binge watching that I'm doing today, or alternate sources of entertainment like YouTube. But our modern server farms have made those possible, as well as non-entertainment related things, like massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other educational resources.
But I do worry about the consequences. I'm glad that some of the major players are putting efforts into energy efficiency and carbon neutrality in order to conserve our natural resources and prevent unnecessarily huge emissions. We don't want the tools the Internet makes available, which we can use to make the world better through communication and education, to in turn destroy us. I like habitable climates more than entertainment. I'll swear to that, right after I finish playing Minecraft.
- Abts, Dennis and Bob Felderman. "A Guided Tour of Data-Center Networking." Communications of the ACM. June 2012, Volume 55, Issue 6, Page 44-51. (October 4, 2013)
- Bamford, James. "The NSA Is Building the Country's Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)." Wired. March 15, 2012. (October 4, 2013) http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/
- Bartels, Angela. "[INFOGRAPHIC] Data Center Evolution: 1960 to 2000." Rackspace. August 31, 2011. (October 5, 2013) http://www.rackspace.com/blog/datacenter-evolution-1960-to-2000/
- Beaty, Donald L. "Data Center Alphabet Soup." Ashrae Journal. May 2013, Volume 55, Issue 5, Pages 88-91. (October 4, 2013)
- Beaty, Donald L. "DNA of a Data Center." Ashrae Journal. June 2013, Volume 55, Issue 6, Pages 58-60. (October 4, 2013)
- Beaty, Donald L. "More Data Center Dimensions." Ashrae Journal. September 2013, Volume 55, Issue 9, Pages 80-82. (October 4, 2013)
- Berkes, Howard. "Amid Data Controversy, NSA Builds Its Biggest Data Farm." NPR. June 10, 2013. (October 4, 2013) http://www.npr.org/2013/06/10/190160772/amid-data-controversy-nsa-builds-its-biggest-data-farm
- Chernicoff, David. "ARM in the datacenter gets another boost." ZDNet. February 14, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.zdnet.com/arm-in-the-datacenter-gets-another-boost-7000011313/
- Chernicoff, David. "RMS demonstrates the importance of the private cloud." ZDNet. September 20, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.zdnet.com/rms-demonstrates-the-importance-of-the-private-cloud-7000020944/
- Cisco. "Virtualized Multiservice Data Center (VMDC) 3.0 Design Guide." December 19, 2012. (October 19, 2013) http://www.cisco.com/en/US/docs/solutions/Enterprise/Data_Center/VMDC/3.0/DG/VMDC3_DG.pdf
- Clark, Jeff. "ARM Versus Intel: Instant Replay of RISC Versus CISC." Data Center Journal. April 9, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.datacenterjournal.com/it/arm-intel-instant-replay-risc-cisc/
- Clark, Jack. "Facebook's first data center DRENCHED by ACTUAL CLOUD." Register. June 8, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/06/08/facebook_cloud_versus_cloud/
- Courtney, Martin, Chris Edwards, James Hayes and Philip Hunter. "Don't Blame the Data Centre." Engineering & Technology. August 2013, Volume 8, Issue 7, Pages 64-67. (October 4, 2013)
- Daly, Jimmy. "The History of Federal Data Centers [#Infograhphic]." FedTech. May 16, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.fedtechmagazine.com/article/2013/05/history-federal-data-centers-infographic
- Data Science Series. "Digital universe will grow to 40ZB in 2020, with a 62% share for emerging markets." December 13, 2012. (October 20, 2013) http://datascienceseries.com/blog/digital-universe-will-grow-to-40zb-in-2020-with-a-62-share-for-emerging-markets
- DiMinico, Chris. "Telecommunications Infrastructure Standard for Data Centers - ANSI/TIA-942." IEEE 802.3 HSSG. (October 19, 2013) http://www.ieee802.org/3/hssg/public/nov06/diminico_01_1106.pdf
- EMC. "Digital Universe." (October 20, 2013) http://www.emc.com/leadership/programs/digital-universe.htm
- EMC. "New Digital Universe Study Reveals Big Data Gap: Less Than 1% of World's Data is Analyzed; Less Than 20% is Protected." December 2012. (October 20, 2013) http://www.emc.com/about/news/press/2012/20121211-01.htm
- Fehrenbacher, Katie. "NYT's data center power reports like taking a time machine back to 2006." Gigaom. September 24, 2012. (October 5, 2013) http://gigaom.com/2012/09/24/nyts-data-center-power-article-reports-from-a-time-machine-back-to-2006/
- Glanz, James. "The Cloud Factories - Power, Pollution and the Internet." New York Times. September 22, 2012. (October 4, 2013) shttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/technology/data-centers-waste-vast-amounts-of-energy-belying-industry-image.html
- Google. "Data center locations." (October 20, 2013) http://www.google.com/about/datacenters/inside/locations/
- Google. "Data Centers." (October 4, 2013) http://www.google.com/about/datacenters/
- Google. "Efficiency: How we do it." (October 16, 2013) http://www.google.com/about/datacenters/efficiency/internal/#servers
- Google. "Explore a Google data center with Street View." (October 16, 2013) http://www.google.com/about/datacenters/inside/streetview/
- Google. "Gallery." (October 16, 2013) http://www.google.com/about/datacenters/gallery/#/
- Google. "Google container data center tour." April 7, 2009. (October 22, 2013) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRwPSFpLX8I&feature=youtu.be
- Hayslett, Michele. "Got Data?" Reference & User Services Quarterly. Spring 2007, Volume 46, Issue 3, Pages 20-22. (October 4, 2013)
- Heath, Nick. "How Facebook ended up with baked potato inside its servers." ZDNet. September 19, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.zdnet.com/how-facebook-ended-up-with-baked-potato-inside-its-servers-7000020896/
- Higginbotham, Stacey. "AMD executive: The data center is changing and ARM will be the compute." Gigaom. June 19, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://gigaom.com/2013/06/19/amd-executive-the-data-center-is-changing-and-arm-will-be-the-compute/
- Hill, Kashmir. "Blueprints of NSA's Ridiculously Expensive Data Center In Utah Suggest It Holds Less Info Than Thought." July 24, 2013. (October 10, 2013) http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/07/24/blueprints-of-nsa-data-center-in-utah-suggest-its-storage-capacity-is-less-impressive-than-thought/
- Kontzer, Tony. "Data Center Operators Flock To Cold Climates." Network Computing. September 30, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.networkcomputing.com/next-generation-data-center/servers/data-center-operators-flock-to-cold-clim/240162015
- Lesser, Adam. "4 types of data centers." Gigaom Pro. October 15, 2012. (October 5, 2013) http://pro.gigaom.com/blog/4-types-of-data-centers/
- Levy, Steven. "Google Throws Open Doors to Its Top-Secret Data Center." Wired. October 17, 2012. (October 4, 2013) http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/10/ff-inside-google-data-center/
- Lohman, Tim. "Datacentres of the 21st century." ZDNet. September 30, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.zdnet.com/datacentres-of-the-21st-century-7000021134/
- Manca, Pete. "Software-Defined Data Centers: What's the Buzz All About?" Wired. May 29, 2013. (October 4, 2013) http://www.wired.com/insights/2013/05/software-defined-data-centers-whats-the-buzz-all-about/
- Masanet, E., A. Shehabi, L. Ramakrishnan, J. Liang, X. Ma, B. Walker, V. Hendrix, and P. Mantha. "The Energy Efficiency Potential of Cloud-Based Software: A U.S. Case Study." Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. June 2013. (October 16, 2013) http://crd.lbl.gov/assets/pubs_presos/ACS/cloud_efficiency_study.pdf
- Metz, Cade. "The Real Reason ARM Will Menace Intel in the Data Center." Wired. May 2, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2013/05/hp-arm-memcached-chip-paper/
- Mone, Gregory. "Redesigning the Data Center." Communications of the ACM. October 2012, Volume 55, Issue 10, Pages 14-16. (October 4, 2013)
- Ohara, Dave. "Google opens up on seven years of its data center history." Gigaom. November 13, 2012. (October 4, 2013) http://gigaom.com/2012/11/13/google-opens-up-on-seven-years-of-its-data-center-history/
- Open Compute Project. (October 22, 2013) http://www.opencompute.org/
- Phneah, Ellyne. "Data volume to hit 1.8ZB in 2011." ZDNet. July 7, 2011. (October 20, 2013) http://www.zdnet.com/data-volume-to-hit-1-8zb-in-2011-2062301103/
- Priest, Dana. "NSA growth fueled by need to target terrorists." Washington Post. July 21, 2013. (October 4, 2013) http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-growth-fueled-by-need-to-target-terrorists/2013/07/21/24c93cf4-f0b1-11e2-bed3-b9b6fe264871_story.html
- Sloan, Jeff. "Data Center Dilemma." Ashrae Journal. March 2013, Volume 55, Issue 3, Pages 62-67. (October 4, 2013)
- Uddin, Mueen, Azizah Abdul Rahman, Suhail Kazi and Raed Alsaquor. "Classification of Data Center to Maximize Energy Utilization and Save Total Cost of Ownership." International Review on Computers and Software. September 2012, Volume 7, N. 5. (October 4, 2013)
- Volpe, Joseph. "eBay's new Utah data center goes green so you never have to stop bidding." Engadget. September 26, 2013. (October 5, 2013) http://www.engadget.com/2013/09/26/ebay-new-green-energy-utah-data-center-fuel-cells/