Oftentimes, cloud computing and data storage are generally perceived as environmentally friendly practices. After all, for people who may not have an IT background, the cloud can be an elusive concept. Yet, despite its name, the reality is that data isn’t simply stored in a “cloud.” Rather, this data storage method requires a vast infrastructure of network devices, all of which have a significant environmental impact. Here’s what you should know about cloud computing and its environmental toll.
What is the cloud?
From a technical standpoint, the cloud refers to the accumulation of computing resources over a network. Colloquially, it has come to represent the full range of infrastructures that enable online activity – everything from social media to streaming and shared drives. It’s understandable that the cloud as we’ve come to know it may seem formless, but in reality, the cloud is in fact made up of tangible components. To power all of this computing, the cloud encompasses:
- Fiber optic tubes
- Cellular towers
- Power distribution units
- Water pipes
- Air conditioners
Powering these separate parts requires electricity, water, air, heat, rare earth elements, metals, and other materials — and all of this adds up to create a significant environmental impact.
How does the cloud affect the environment?
The environmental effects of cloud computing are far reaching, but there are a few noteworthy ways it affects our planet. For one, heat is the primary waste product of computation. It’s produced 24/7 and must be abated with air conditioning. For data centres, cooling accounts for 40% of energy usage. The electricity required to power servers and keep them cool is staggering – which is why the cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry. The average data centre uses roughly the same amount of electricity as 50,000 homes.
As a more efficient alternative, some data centres have begun using chilled water to cool their facilities. Liquid is more conductive than air, but this also creates an environmental dilemma that manifests in the form of water shortages. The US National Security Agency, for example, is powered by seven million gallons a day, leading to water shortages in nearby communities.
Finally, cloud computing creates further environmental strain due to its e-waste. The impact is vast; virtually all devices with wireless connectivity could be considered part of the e-waste generated by cloud computing. This encompasses smartphones, tablets, laptops, and countless other electronics. Many are manufactured with designed obsolescence, leading to frequent replacements and an abundance of metals, plastics, and toxic elements that too often wind up in landfills and pollute the environment. And, when it comes to data centres themselves, there are dozens of components that contribute to e-waste, from cables to batteries and power distribution units. Many cannot be reused and must therefore be retired at the end of their lifespan.
Addressing the environmental toll of data centres
Large companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon have pledged carbon-neutral data centres by leveraging renewable energy like wind and solar, but these resources are more challenging to implement for smaller organizations that lack the appropriate infrastructure. Many are housed in older buildings and lack the economic resources to pursue greener operations, though some companies have migrated their data storage to larger facilities with the ability to accommodate more sustainable practices. Until the energy issue becomes regulated, however, it will likely persist among smaller companies.
In terms of the e-waste generated by cloud computing, manufacturers must find ways to design equipment and facilities with longer lifespans. This would include designing with repairs in mind instead of replacement, as well as establishing a formalized recycling system. As with other types of e-waste, it would require collaboration from multiple parties beyond manufacturers alone to make meaningful progress, including businesses and regulatory agencies.
The best thing businesses can do now to minimize the impact of their cloud computing is to enlist the help of Quantum for data centre decommissioning and other e-waste processing. Find out more about how we can support your business through the decommissioning process here.