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The Impact of Data Centers on The Environment

What have we done?

We’ve created a monster.

A technological, invisible and energy-consuming monster: the Data Centers. Why did we do it? Because they are the foundation of our digital world, a world that has become essential to our daily lives.

The negative impacts of data centers on the environment are such that it is urgent to act before it is too late.

What is a data center?

"Foundation", "backbone", or "brain of the Internet" are some of the terms used to illustrate the importance of data centers in the functioning of our digital world. It is indeed the foundation on which all this gigantic data architecture rests.

Simply put, data centers are the physical locations where servers are concentrated to process data for the many digital "services" we use every day: the Internet, the cloud, emails, social media, streaming, financial transactions, Google Home, Alexa, networked video games, business operations and much, much more... 

Many companies have their own data centers housed onsite. Others prefer to subcontract to third parties, a trend gaining in popularity because of the increasing reliance on digital technologies and the emergence of cloud computing. GAFA and other digital giants require millions of servers to run their operations. Some occupy a single small room, while others are vast complexes with hundreds of thousands of servers. Thus, real server cities and hyperscale data centers (or hyper data centers) have been created all over the world.  

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some 67 million servers were hosted worldwide. This number is rapidly growing, alongside that of hyperscale data centers which is exploding, especially since China and other countries are getting into the game. The upcoming massive deployment of "new" digital technologies (AI, autonomous vehicles, Internet of Things, 5G, blockchain, etc.) will accentuate the demand for and dependence of data centers.

This will considerably impact the environment: data centers are real energy guzzlers.

Data centers’ environmental impact: Not cool, man! Not cool.

To carry out its mission to store, process and transfer data, a server needs a lot of electricity and water. But these tasks constitute only half of its real energy consumption: 50% of the electricity is used to cool the servers.

A data center never sleeps. Its servers running 24/7 overheat and give off a lot of heat (the Joule effect). Using powerful cooling systems that consume a lot of energy, the ambient temperature must be maintained at 21 degrees Celsius to prevent the deterioration of the servers.

Are data centers really bad for the environment? Here’s the link between data centers and climate change. Some of the numbers might shock you     .

  • Data centers use nearly 3% of the world's electricity consumption.
  • Data centers account for 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Data centers are responsible for 15% of the IT sector's carbon footprint and 18% of the digital pollution.
  • In 2018, it was estimated that the carbon footprint of data centers was equivalent to the entire aviation industry! 
  • Some of the largest data centers can contain hundreds of thousands of servers and IT devices using more than 100 megawatts. That's what 80,000 American homes consume in electricity.
  • To cool its 800 data centers, California alone uses the equivalent of 158,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools per year to cool its servers. The water used by the data centers is mostly discharged directly into the sewer system, causing damage to the environment, the economy and the population.
  • Per year, the water used by a medium-sized data center is equivalent to that of three hospitals!
  • In 2016 (that was 6 years ago!), it was calculated that, data centers consumed globally more electricity than Great Britain alone (416.2 vs 300 TWh). Imagine today!

But we have some control, right? Not really.

Data centers are on the rise

Make no mistake, data centers are here to stay. They are useful and necessary in our digital world.

But the impact of data centers on the environment is too heavy for us to stand by and do nothing.

This is something we've known for several years. And yet, it is difficult to know the actual impacts of data centers on the environment. Most operators do not provide the information necessary to accurately assess data centers’ energy and environmental magnitude. We fear the worst. 

However, specialists, analysts, and some industry players have noted the rise of this energy-guzzling monster and its impact on climate change. The solutions they have put forward are, in general, industry regulation, standardization and the promotion of energy efficiency, and, above all, improved technologies. But it’s not enough.

It's time to act. 

The servers must serve us.

The P2P Paradigm: fewer servers, more humans

It is through a paradigm shift that we can achieve this. 

Of course, we need to change our digital habits and behaviours to counter the e-pollution and the environmental impacts of data centers. But we must also rethink our relationship with servers and data centers. We must avoid being dependent on them, diversify the exchange of data streams and even avoid them when possible. Yes, it is possible!

It's a bit like our relationship with the car: we have changed our behaviour and approach to the environmental threat that oil poses. New technologies and regulations, but also awareness and diversification. For example, if we can walk or bike for our utility trips, it is a fun and effective way to keep ourselves healthy and reduce our dependence on cars.

In the digital world, peer-to-peer (P2P) is a concrete example of this because it avoids servers by creating a direct link between users. It is now obvious that video calls and videoconferences are essential in the organization of work. A single one-hour call emits 1.3kg of CO2 and uses 2 litres of drinking water per participant. With peer-to-peer technology, no more data centers are used. Each computer acts as a server and a client at the same time.

At its core, peer-to-peer communication aims to establish an authentic connection between humans, using the right technology as a tool and lever to make the world a better place.

At Crewdle, this is our mission.

Let's free ourselves from servers and data centers, one conversation at a time!

PS: Here’s something with cats to lighten the mood and score some easy Internet points.

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Crewdle Team
May 4, 2022
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