With the world's mushrooming number of data centres, each routinely gobbling up as much energy as a small town, data-hungry organisations such as banks and internet companies are rapidly replacing airlines and drivers of sport utility vehicles as the green lobby's environmental villains.
But a Finnish power company believes it may have come up with a solution. In a huge cave underneath Helsinki's Uspenski Cathedral, originally built as the city's main bomb shelter during the Second World War, Helsingin Energia is developing a data centre designed to use less power and to channel heat from the computers into the system that heats the city's homes. Work on the data centre, which is to be used by the local IT services company Academica, began in September and is scheduled for completion this spring.
"Data centres use between 1 and 2 per cent of all the energy consumed in the world, but with the heat generated by the Helsinki data centre's 2,500 servers, we can provide heating for the equivalent of 500 family homes or 1,000 apartments in Helsinki," said Juha Sipila, the project manager at Helsingin Energia. There is also evidence of other initiatives aimed at making data centres more energy-efficient. For example, in Ukiton, Switzerland, IBM is using the waste heat from a data centre to warm a swimming pool. Computer companies including IBM, Microsoft, HP and Dell have formed a global consortium called the Green Grid to more effectively manage energy usage in the world's data centres.
But there is a growing view that companies that run large data centres must take even more responsibility for their carbon footprint. Trewin Restorick, the director of environmental charity the Global Action Plan says information and communications technologies (ICT) equipment "currently accounts for 3 to 4 per cent of the world's carbon emissions". "The average server, for example, has roughly the same annual carbon footprint as an SUV doing 15 miles per gallon," he says. "With a carbon footprint now equal to the aviation industry, ICT, and how businesses utilise ICT, will increasingly come under the spotlight as governments seek to achieve carbon-cutting commitments."
Cameron Green, the IT specialist at Global Action Plan, says: "In the case of organisations such as Google or the major banks, the problem is doubled by the fact that all data is backed up and duplicated." The full extent of the energy consumption of the major banks' data centres is hard to quantify as the banks are highly secretive about the locations of their back-up facilities. For security reasons, they are frequently located in unobtrusive office buildings that remain empty apart from the thousands of servers stored there.
As half the energy used to run a data centre is used to cool the servers, environmentalists hope that advances in cooling technology could be used to reduce emissions or divert energy elsewhere, as in Helsinki. There is also new software called "virtual computing" that could be harnessed to reduce the overall number of servers needed. "In any data centre, there are usually 15 per cent of the servers doing nothing with others routinely using only 10 per cent of their full capacity. Virtual computing software could be used to make data centres more efficient," Mr Green says.
However, reducing the number of servers or making the data more energy efficient will do little to address the fact that the more efficient the data centres become, the more data companies load on to their servers. Internet companies such as Google and Facebook are now making claims that their newest data centres are increasingly energy-efficient. But this ignores the fact that as internet service companies compete to offer customers increasingly rich services, any advances made in data storage energy efficiency will be more than offset by a growing need for storage space for improved service offerings.
"People do not realise that when Google offers you more capacity on its e-mail service and you leave all your e-mails undeleted, that servers are running night and day to store all those unread messages. That is one reason why data centres are being built at a huge clip. You reduce the carbon footprint by 40 per cent but then find you have to build five more data centres," Mr Green says. Moore's Law, the computer industry's self-fulfilling prophecy that computer chips will continue to double in power approximately every two years, also means that the thousands of servers in each data centre have to be replaced every four years. This raises the thorny question of what becomes of the old ones.
"Disposing of computers is a huge problem as many are finding their way to poor countries to be broken up, which represents an environmental disaster in the making," Mr Green says. "Guiyu in China is one of the prime examples of the effect it can have." Guiyu is home to an estimated 150,000 migrant workers who work 16 hours a day recovering valuable metals and parts from discarded computers. China is believed to receive around 1 million tons of electronic waste a year shipped from countries including the US, Canada and Japan, and Guiyu receives more of the waste than any other area in China.
Last month, the UN released an environmental report, Recycling - From E-Waste to Resources, stating that China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries. The report predicts that by 2020, e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 per cent from 2007 levels in China and by 500 per cent in India. The report added that most e-waste in China is improperly handled and much of it incinerated by backyard recyclers releasing plumes of far-reaching toxic smoke.
So, despite the best efforts of companies such as Helsingin Energia and IBM, the world is approaching a point where it may have to become as conscious of its data consumption as it is of fuel consumption. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org