Cloud Computing - Footprints

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Sep 3 2010

The primary advantage for users of cloud services is their non-localization, yet the materiality of the infrastructure requires an evaluation of the ecological costs of cloud computing. Some significant questions come to mind, such as, how much energy does it cost to maintain these services? what are the land-use requirements for server farms? how much rare earth metals do cloud servers consume on a general basis, thus driving global demand significantly? how does the mining of these materials effect local environments? what is the cycle of product replacement? are servers designed to be recycled? does clustering services, particularly through virtualization, reduce the overall number of servers being purchased by any significant factor? can the overall use of cloud services effectively reduce the need for travel, thus reducing footprints in other sectors? are there better locations for cloud infrastructure, such as near wind farms in North Dakota, than other places such as energy starved California?

"In 2002, the global data centre footprint, including equipment use and embodied carbon, was 76 MtCO2e and this is expected to more than triple by 2020 to 259 MtCO2e – making it the fastest-growing contributor to the ICT sector’s carbon footprint, at 7% pa in relative terms.

A major trend driving down the overall growth in the footprint of data centres (Row C) is virtualisation – pooling assets such as computing and storage where utilisation is low, so they can be used across the enterprise and beyond. Virtualisation represents a radical rethinking of how to deliver the services of data centres, pooling resources that are underutilised and could reduce emissions by 27% – equivalent to 111 MtCO2e.33 Technologies are also available to detect where within the data centre temperatures are running high and to direct cooling to those areas thus delivering a 12% reduction in cooling costs. By 2020, the analysis predicted that these measures could achieve an approximate 18% reduction (55 MtCO2e) in consumption. Only about half of the energy used by data centres powers the servers and storage; the rest is needed to run back-up, uninterruptible power supplies (5%) and cooling systems (45%).34 There are a number of ways to reduce this energy overhead, some of which are expected to be adopted by 2020. The simplest way is to turn down the air conditioning. Similarly, in climates where the outside temperature allows, simply directing external air into the data centre can save cooling costs for much of the year. By allowing the temperature of the data centre to fluctuate along a broader operating temperature range, a 24% reduction in energy consumption from cooling is possible. Distributing low voltage direct current (DC) into the data centre would eliminate the need for mechanical back-up, uninterruptible power supply units. By 2020, the net footprint for data centres is predicted to be 259 MtCO2e. At this point, volume servers will represent more than 50% of the data centre footprint (174 MtCO2e) and cooling systems for data centres alone will amount to 4% of the total ICT footprint." (SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age)

"The U.S. is almost completely dependent on China for these metals. One metal, neodymium, is used in hard-disk drive magnets, and nearly 100% of its production today is in China. "China appears to view rare earths as one of the incentives they can offer a technology firm scouting for a new plant location," said U.S. Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, in a statement on Tuesday. "How do we compete in attracting and retaining manufacturing firms that need access to rare earth elements in light of China's current near monopoly, and their willingness to use their monopoly power to our disadvantage?"