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Apache Authors: Dana Gardner, Liz McMillan, Mohamed El-Refaey, Ajay Budhraja, Don MacVittie

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The Secret of the Cloud

The Cloud is Powering Data Center Energy Over Consumption

We need to get something off our chest, proverbially speaking. We are a Cloud hosting provider. We provide Windows Cloud, Linux Cloud and Cloud Apps on Demand to the market. This is not what we want to use this space for. It’s true, brand blog writing should cover and represent the brand in which the blog is being written however we are also people with real thoughts, needs, ideas. For the longest time we have watched as the Cloud market tumbled on through building greater and vaster solutions utilizing the ICT (Information Communications Technology) market. We have watched as the ICT Market (Mobile Device Market) has grown hand in hand with Cloud computing solutions. We have watched as application culture has taken over the mobile world. We have watched as Cloud based services have become more ubiquitous and cheaper to utilize for both consumers and businesses.

On the same accord, we have watched as the Cloud and ICT markets have built themselves upon a dark secret, one which no one cares to talk about. That secret is the impact of data centers on our global energy addiction.

Making Physical Connections to the Cloud

By its name, the Cloud misleads consumers as to what it actually is. We have heard the story before: the Cloud is phrase created by marketers to sell product. As with most things marketing, the name is misleading to those in the know and purposely misleading to those not in the know. A common issue with understanding how the Cloud actually works comes in the form of consumers understanding how the technology impacts them in their personal lives and not understanding how it impacts them outside of their personal lives. On the personal level, the Cloud has been marketed as a technology which eliminates the need for local storage devices. It has been marketed as the death of vast hard drives and 1TB external hard drives. The reason behind this marketing is simple: for a low monthly price, consumers can store their data in the Cloud without having to worry about backing it up locally. No more worrying about backing up files and no more need to purchase local storage devices. The marketing sells safe, simple and cheap. This said, the marketing behind the Cloud has caused a major disconnect as to how the technology actually works.

When it comes to understanding how the Cloud works outside of a consumers personal life, marketing has eliminated the need for critical thought and understanding. Due to marketing efforts, most consumers believe physical computing resources, space and hardware have been eliminated from the equation. As noted by Randall H. Victora, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Minnesota:

“When somebody says, ‘I’m going to store something in the cloud, we don’t need disk drives anymore’ — the cloud is disk drives. We get them one way or another. We just don’t know it.”

That quote, taken from an excellent article by James Glanz of The New York Times titled, “Power, Pollution and the Internet” (9.22.12), highlights the major disconnect between consumers and the infrastructure of the Cloud. Most people don’t realize that storing something in the Cloud means storing that data in a physical server located in a factory sized data center which maintains 99.9999% uptime – often to the detriment of the data center provider and the consumer.

Data Center Energy Consumption & Mobile Cloud Applications

Mobile Market and the Cloud

Before we can get into the physical requirements needed to run a data center, err, Cloud solutions, we need to first understand how we came to this place in time. The demand for Cloud based solutions has grown out of a global demand for around the clock applications and programs which, on an instant’s notice, can preform as you wish it to. A good example of this is a consumer accessing their Facebook profile at 3 AM. The demand for 24/7/365 solutions has lock step, hand in hand grown with our addiction to mobile products. With nearly 800 million Android devices and roughly 200 million iOS devices floating around the globe, our mobile addiction is based on constant connection and powerful applications. This combination: Constant around the clock connection and powerful applications (the ICT Market) has given rise to factory sized data centers hidden away from the world.

For those of who don’t know, a data center is a large room or few hundred thousand square foot facility which houses 24/7/365 in operation servers. Servers (i.e. computers without the keyboard or monitor) run around the clock because the market demands it. It has to be noted, Solar VPS supplies our consumers with 100% uptime data centers. We too, operate around the clock. Yet the truth is, when it comes to ’round the clock operation of business critical servers, those servers A) eat up a ton of energy and B) need a ton of industrial strength cooling (which also eats up a ton of electricity) to stay in operation. Moreover, to protect against natural disasters or normal power outages, both cooling and power within data centers operate on a redundant backup plan. This is to say, if the initial power or cooling system fails, an auxiliary system kicks in to maintain solution uptime. As you might imagine, this eats a ton of energy. Point in case, from the aforementioned New York Times article:

A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.
Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.
To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.
Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load, the estimates show.
“It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”
Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.

As noted, most data centers run around the clock so we can enjoy instant access to applications and data even when the need for round the clock instant access isn’t there. We are our own problem. We have created our own mess and we are only accelerating it.

The Fix

The fix to the solution is ourselves. While data center providers can install cleaner running power and cooling technologies (among other techs), the fix is with ourselves. Maybe we don’t need to save as many emails as we do. Maybe we don’t need to upload a million photos to Facebook or keep items in Google Drive which we have already forgotten about. The world will continue to rely on Cloud solutions and mobile devices/applications. It is up to us to figure out a way to balance our need with demand and electrical output. We need the Cloud. We also need the environment.

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