SPROWT Article | Paulo Lopes

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There's no such thing as a free lunch: ICT and the environment

The fantastic pace of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) evolution has offered us a world of unimaginable possibilities in diverse areas such as entertainment (music and video streaming, games, and virtual reality-VR), health and well-being (devices on or near the body; VR for remote medical-surgical interventions), daily consumption (online stores), and many more that would be tedious to enumerate; we conclude this brief overview by recalling telepresence, which was so beneficial during the pandemic in various areas such as education (schools, universities), the business world (meetings, teamwork), and interpersonal and family contacts.

And how do we achieve the “miracle” of sustaining millions of users of these applications or services simultaneously? The solution has three pillars: the devices (terminals) in our hands, homes, offices, and classrooms – TVs, smartphones and smartwatches, VR glasses, tablets, and laptops; communication networks – wired and wireless, connecting them to Internet providers; and computers (servers) running the applications that offer us all the services that help us so much. It turns out that… these servers are housed in gigantic data centers (DCs) that are mostly the realization of a technology called cloud computing and require torrents of energy to operate and torrents of water to cool them. For example, a medium-sized DC consumes the same (15MW) as 15,000 households and uses water equivalent to “several” hospitals [1], and a hyperscale DC from major GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) cloud providers consumes more than 100 TWh (meaning 50 such DCs consume the same as Portugal consumed in 2021 [2]). It is estimated that Amazon (AWS) alone has a total of 1.3 million servers in its DCs.

So, for several years, the carbon footprint (resulting from the production of the necessary energy) of the three pillars has been similar to that of aviation! [2][7] To this detrimental effect on the environment, we must add water waste, which is a double perversion, not only because of the waste itself but also because, especially in DCs built in residential areas, the water comes from the public network. The water issue, combined with inflation in land prices for construction, were two of the reasons why, first in 2019 in Amsterdam [3], and later throughout the Netherlands [4], the construction of DCs that consume more than 70 MW and occupy more than 10 hectares was banned.

And what measures are or can be taken to mitigate this pressure on our planet’s resources and climate?

The increasingly efficient use of energy has long been a concern for ICT, if only because, as our Brazilian friends say, “they are messing with my pocket”; that is, the energy bill weighs heavily on the operating costs of a DC. If we add environmental concerns and the regulatory suggestions or impositions that are beginning to appear (see, for example, the European Commission’s Recommendations in “Data Centres Code of Conduct” [5]), the energy efficiency of a DC is measured in PUE (Power Usage Efficiency) – a PUE of 1 means that all the energy supplied to the DC is used by computing devices (servers, storage cabinets, routers, switches, etc.); the further the value is from 1, the less efficient the DC is (energy is spent on air conditioning, UPS, sensors, lighting).

The “Global Data Center Survey” by the Uptime Institute, conducted worldwide in 2022 [6], indicates a PUE of 1.55, although DCs currently under construction generally have values better than 1.3, and Google reports that the PUE of its DCs is 1.12 [7].

Another way to reduce the environmental footprint is to consume “green” energy; and here (hence the quotation marks), nuclear energy also comes into play, in addition to solar and wind energy.

What about water?

Huge amounts of energy are transformed into heat in DCs, mostly resulting from the operation of processors, memories, calculation accelerators (GPGPUs), and switches.

The usual way to cool equipment in DCs is to “blow” cold air (20°C or a little more) into the cooling inlets and collect the hot air at the outlets; then, cool that same air in cooling towers and reintroduce it into the DC, a process that traditionally uses water. Estimates for the year 2014 indicate that 100 billion liters were used to cool DCs in the United States [7]; the water issue is a delicate matter, as evidenced by the low percentage of responses on this subject in the aforementioned survey [6].

Just as informative campaigns about global warming, greenhouse gases, and petroleum derivatives have multiplied, it would be expected that these issues would also be disclosed; but quoting freely [7], “if high-definition color cameras were banned from mobile phones, there would be a 40% reduction in data traffic in Europe. But the Pandora’s box was opened…” (and in DCs, there would be huge savings in storage systems – disks – and in processing that information, therefore, in energy).

It is essential to publicize that, “although information factories are not emitting smoke or pouring pollutants” [7], their environmental footprint is significant so that we can, according to our conscience, modify our habits (reduce the number of posts on FB or LinkedIn, videos on YouTube, etc.) as we do when adopting “green” behaviors – recycling, using less polluting appliances and vehicles, and many others.

After all, mathematician Clive Humby’s phrase “data is the new oil,” created to show the value of information (Big Data), may have another meaning…