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.