Experts suggest data centres will consume one fifth of the world’s electricity by 2030by George Grylls / November 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Your family photos are currently in a warehouse on the edge of the M25. Or maybe they are in a warehouse in Swansea. Or maybe, just maybe, they are not in a prosaic suburb, but in a hollowed-out mountain in Norway.
When we think of the “cloud” we are supposed to think of the ether. But data is not immaterial. The route you took to work in your car today, the time at which you logged in to Facebook, the amount of money in your bank account—all this information is physical, perishable, and it is housed in a farm of computers hidden far from your view.
“A lot of people have the perception of the cloud as something out there,” says Tor Kristian Gyland, pushing his hand out into an expanse of thin air. “It doesn’t matter to them if their data is stored in a field in Ireland, or on a hill outside Barcelona or in a mountain in Stavanger.”
Gyland is the affable and surprisingly un-villainous CEO of Green Mountain, a company that transformed an old NATO ammunition store into an underground data centre. “Digitisation has progressed really quickly. Everyone now has an iPhone, an iPad, a Smart TV. But they don’t know where it’s all actually happening.”
When companies store their data (or rather, your data) there are three methods they can use. They can rent “racks” of servers in a form of storage called colocation. Or they can upload the data to the not-so-nebulous cloud, in which case there is no specific server on which the data is stored at any one time, with it instead rebounding from one server to another. Finally, if you are a Facebook or a Google you can just go and build your own data centre.
Whichever way you go, the final product is a warehouse containing thousands of black boxes whirring with billions of calculations. The precious computers are lavished with air conditioning lest they overheat and malfunction. Data centres positively feast on electricity.
“They are growing like mushrooms,” bemoans Dr Anders Andrae, a Swedish academic who studies the ecological impact of technology. “The number of data centres is increasing by 25 per cent every year and this is leading to at least a 10 per cent annual growth in the sector’s energy consumption.”
Data centres are indeed big business. Earlier this month industry grandees gathered in the City of London for the glitz and glamour of a digital infrastructure conference. For the builders of the internet this was the thirteenth such gathering this year. Old Billingsgate is just one destination in a sixteen-city tour that takes in everywhere from Sao Paolo to Jakarta. Beer, business cards and burger sliders were liberally dispensed as representatives from Google and Uber gave keynote speeches.
Noticeably prominent at the fair were representatives from Scandinavian data centres. The “Nordics,” as they are colloquially known, have established themselves as industry leaders. Facebook announced this year that they are building their third data centre in the Swedish city of Luleå, just south of the Arctic Circle. Google owns a converted Alvar Aalto paper mill in Finland. And despite the Bond-lair connotations, there are many incentives to building data centres in Scandinavia. Firstly, the outside temperature reduces the cooling costs; secondly, the Finnish, Icelandic and Swedish governments offer tax cuts; thirdly, renewable energy is plentiful and comparatively cheap. Green Mountain, for example, uses hydropower from the adjacent fjords.
Lars Schedin is the CEO of the Swedish company EcoDataCenter. By using uniquely sustainable energy, and repurposing the waste heat generated by servers to warm people’s houses, it claims to be the world’s first “climate positive” data centre.
“If you watch an HD Netflix film it uses as much CO2 as driving for 300km,” he says, armed with an array of self-calculated statistics that he hopes will combat the world’s apathy to the issue of data centre pollution. “Despacito has been streamed 5.5 billion times. That’s 350,000 tonnes of CO2— equivalent to the yearly emissions of 230,000 taxis in Stockholm.”
But there is another reason why the “Nordics” might prove attractive and it has nothing to do with ecological concerns or low energy costs. Scandinavia—that Northerly brotherhood of progressive politics and unmenacing hygge—has a reputation for security.
“There is a lot of secrecy around the data centre industry,” says Tor Kristian Gyland, whose Green Mountain stores data in a seemingly impenetrable natural fortress. “Companies don’t want you to know where data is stored.”
At Old Billingsgate, the vast majority of vendors were hawking sophisticated fire alarms, titanic air conditioners or impermeable cladding. It was a stark reminder of just how delicate data is. Take, for example, the lightning strike in Singapore that caused the country’s stock exchange to close for three hours in 2014. Or the fire at a data centre in Atlanta that caused the cancellation of 1,000 Delta flights in 2016. It is not malicious code that causes the most data loss, it is the physical loss of racks.
And whilst natural disasters may sometimes explain the destruction of servers, increasingly data breaches are the result of deliberate foul play. In 2015, thousands of Lloyds customers had their account numbers and sort codes stolen, not through hacking, but because a server was stolen from a data centre belonging to the insurance firm RSA.
Storing data in far-flung Scandinavia is an attempt to deliberately distance the valuable information and infrastructure from the public’s consciousness. However, this additional layer of security only goes so far. Earlier this year 600 servers were stolen from a data centre used to mine bitcoin in Iceland.
The data centre industry is caught in a Catch-22. If people are more widely educated about data centres, then criminals might also become aware of the physical fragility of the online world. If people are kept uninformed about data centres, then the public will remain unaware of the environmental repercussions of their digital actions.
By Dr. Andrae’s estimation, data centres will consume one fifth of the world’s electricity by 2030. Maybe it’s time to start deleting those old photos.