The Power Hungry Internet

by | Nov 21, 2012

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The internet is a growing and power-hungry system, with 2.4 billion users – double the number of users just five years ago. There is so much information used on the internet every hour that it would take 7 million DVDs to store it all. It is growing so fast that we expect there to be four times more data on the internet in just four years. Think about it: in five years, the number of users doubled and, in four years, the data will quadruple. There are estimates that, by 2015, we will be consuming 966 exabytes. Do you even know what an exabyte is? That’s one quintillion bytes, or one billion gigabytes. Can you imagine how much power that the internet consumes?

All by itself, and thanks to billions of data-hungry users, the internet uses about 1.5 percent of all the electricity consumed worldwide. At about 30 billion watts, you can think of it as equal to the output of thirty nuclear power plants. The total cost of that electric bill would total about $8.5 billion, comparable to the profit that Google, Inc. claimed in 2011.

In the United States, data centers that house the vast amounts of information that we access consume more electricity than our automobile industry. North America isn’t the only heavy user of internet power. By 2015, the European data centers will be using 100 TWh – enough electricity to power 8 million homes.

What makes matters worse is that data centers everywhere are notoriously inefficient. Most of them only use about ten percent of their power for calculations, with the rest of that power wasted. They’re not very green, either. Most data centers still depend on diesel generators for backup, which contribute heavily to pollution.

Some of our most profitable American companies are culprits. Microsoft does more than its share of polluting in the San Francisco Bay Area – its Santa Clara data center was one of the biggest diesel polluters in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, Amazon was fined over a quarter of a million dollars for its use of diesel generators without standard environmental permits.

However important green computing is to us, it’s not an easy solution to come by. There are a lot of factors to consider when implementing greener options. The design of energy-efficient cooling systems is complicated. Green hardware and power systems are expensive to purchase and integrate into existing systems. Considering that many current data centers were so poorly planned, let alone finished, upgrades and improvements in efficiency may be cost-prohibitive. New data centers can cost millions, even billions of dollars. Upgrades to existing centers can be so expensive as to be unaffordable or eat heavily into profits before they see returns on the investment.

Pike Research estimates that, over the next five years, cooling and power solutions will represent 46% of green data center revenue. Key players will emerge in the green data center marketplace based on their innovations in marketing, technology, and internal management.

Competition for efficiency ratings and profitability could help to influence data centers to continue to make improvements. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) has stringent criteria for its LEED Gold Certification. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating systems encompass the design, construction, and operational aspects of green building projects. To earn a Gold rating, data centers must use 40 percent less water than what is considered ideal by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASRAE). Ninety percent of electronic technologies on the site, such as computers and printers, must be Energy Star compliant. LEED Gold-rated data centers need to be accessible to public transportation, and there must be a demonstrated commitment to the use and reuse of recycled materials.

Is there any hope on the horizon that we can make the Internet more power-efficient and safer for the environment? With green data center investments expected to increase over the next four years, perhaps this doesn’t have to become a doomsday scenario of pollution and energy consumption that will lead the planet closer to potential disaster. If we make the effort to find more eco-conscious ways of powering our desire for information at our fingertips, we could reduce data center electricity consumption by 33 percent. What are you doing to influence the industries powering the internet to go green?

Gerad Hoyt heads Communications & PR for WSI Inc. a Satellite Internet Provider based in Jacksonville, FL.

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