If you told someone a few years ago that data centres emitted as much carbon dioxide as the pre-Covid airline industry, they might be pretty surprised.
Today, however, these engines behind all our food delivery apps, Netflix streams and other digital conveniences, have become all too obvious in the way they guzzle up energy.
During the pandemic, each video call you made sucked up some electricity at a data centre that processed it. Each file you downloaded spun up a drive somewhere in the cloud.
In Singapore, data centres used about 7 per cent of the electricity in 2020, according to the government, which has temporarily paused the building of new data centres.
When Singapore, a country that aims to be the world’s data capital, takes this drastic measure, you know the situation is dire.
However, cutting back data centres can only be a temporary measure. In the years ahead, smart factories, self-driving cars and wearable electronics will all “phone home” to the cloud to transfer even more data.
What this means is that data centres have to be smarter with energy use because there is only going to be more data, not less. There are a few ways to this.
In some countries, data centres can draw on the renewable energy available; in others, the way forward is simply to design the airflow to be optimal so fans take up less energy to cool down the servers.
It is true many data centre owners have been trying to push down the PUE (power usage effectiveness), the unit for measuring energy efficiency, in recent years.
In 2020, the global average PUE was 1.59, edging towards the 1.5 mark, which means a data centre is efficient (1.2 is every efficient and 2.0 is average).
Unfortunately, the Uptime Institute, an advisory organisation that came up with the data, said this was just marginally better than the year before. Slim improvements have been the story since 2013.
At some point, the customers and businesses that are increasingly migrating their operations and transactions onto the cloud need to play a part as well.
In a way, the data centre is like a car. Petrol engines are being replaced by electric motors but today’s newfangled electric cars still need charging up.
Can an owner cut down his usage by having a weekly shopping list and reducing his trips to the supermarket? Instead of blasting the aircon to simulate an European spring in Singapore’s heat, is it possible to leave it at 24 deg C?
Over the years, some businesses that are more conscious of their environmental footprint have driven down their energy use through similar means.
For example, they have raised the temperature permitted in server halls because their chips can now support it. This means working the cooling system less hard and cutting down energy use.
For businesses that are big enough, like Google, they can also smartly schedule heavy loads for when solar or wind power is available, so as to tap less on the power grid.
There are other ways, of course. At its annual customer event last week, Amazon talked up the need for customers to do their part as well.
As a way forward, the cloud provider pointed to “serverless” setups, where customers would not worry about maintaining individual servers to run their apps, but instead used a highly virtualised setup, where each piece of hardware, from processor to memory, is run optimally.
Less wastage, in other words, by tapping on a pooled resource, instead of running your own server that may idle for a good amount of time.
Amazon also showed off a tool that lets customers easily measure how sustainable their digital operations are. They can track how much impact they have over time.
At a deeper level, there can also be efforts to create more sustainable apps. For example, can an app not make unnecessary calls to hardware resources when it can complete a task with less?
All this takes a lot of rethinking. For a while, when the first cloud services came online, they were sold as boundless resources for anyone who had a credit card. Easy, cheap and fast, except now we know they don’t come without a cost.
So far, the Big Three cloud providers of Amazon, Google and Microsoft have all declared targets to be “carbon free”, “carbon negative” or “net zero” in the years ahead.
They will be the first movers and driving forces. However, they will need to not just optimise their own infrastructure and processes but also encourage and nudge their customers to get onboard as well.
These customers that have grown with the cloud are needed to make change happen. Yes, with the same scalability and speed that the cloud promises.