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Powering the Cloud

by Win Noren on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 1:42 PM

I read an interesting article the other day: The Cloud Begins With Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power - an overview of the electricity used by the global digital ecosystem. I must admit that until reading this (lengthy) article I never gave much thought to the electrical consumption of our ever-expanding digital world.

According to this paper, the Information-Communications-Technologies (ICT) ecosystem consumes almost 10% of world electricity generation and 50% more energy than global aviation. Even more surprising to me was that streaming an hour of video content weekly to my smartphone or tablet will consume more electricity in a year than is consumed by two new refrigerators! Beyond noticing that my cell phone needs to be charged, I never thought about the electrical cost to deliver content to my devices.

Soon hourly Internet traffic will exceed the annual Internet traffic in 2000. This digital traffic is distributed by an electricity-consuming infrastructure. According to the Digital Power Group, coal is the world's largest source of electricity currently supplying 40% of the global electricity which is why they state that "the digital universe and Cloud begins with coal."

The paper goes on to remind us that "digital bits are electrons...[and that] astronomical quantities of data eventually add up to real power in the real world." In fact, according to Greenpeace1, "If the Cloud were a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity demand in the world," coming after only the US, China, Russia, and Japan but before India.

Obviously data centers are large consumers of electricity and for many the cost of buying computer servers is less than the cumulative cost of the electricity consumed by those servers in their four-year life span. Facebook opened a data center in 2012 in North Carolina where electric rates are 10-30% below the national average and Facebook projects that it will save $100 million in operating costs because of the lower electrical costs. It is also projected that this Facebook facility will use one million tons of coal over the next decade. Similarly a huge data center under construction in China advertises cheap power, not cheap labor, as their competitive advantage.

So, of course, the obvious question is how will the ever-growing need for power be met? I was aware that our growing world has a growing demand for electricity but I never had considered the role that moving bits of digital data play in this.....Hey, did you see that funny comedy video by Michael Jr


1 Greenpeace International, How Clean is your Cloud, April 2012

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Author
Win Noren

A look at statistics and data analysis in today's popular media. Win is Vice President of Global Operations at StatSoft. After receiving a master's degree in Statistics from Kansas State University Win joined StatSoft almost 20 years ago. Win loves purple, chocolate, and cats...and of course her husband.

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