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Like everyone else, we assumed the infrastructure that keeps the Internet streaming gigabits of data to us is a model of 21st-century efficiency.
We’ve published dozens of photos of mammoth data centers that are popping up faster than dandelions across the nation. Row upon row of server installations sit in pristine facilities, nary a carcinogen-belching smokestack in sight. Data, invisible to the naked eye, is propelled upward into The Cloud, which we envisioned as an angelic, billowy friend in the sky that magically carries us into the future.
We even imagined the nerds that built this magnificent digital edifice, arriving at work each day in their fuel-efficient hybrids toting a biodegradable lunch bag of organically grown veggies.
Unfortunately, a lengthy feature in Sunday’s New York Times rudely awakened us from this idyllic dream state and introduced us to the dark side of the Web. It turns out the data center infrastructure at the heart of the Internet is the single largest waster of electricity on the planet, and a major source of run-of-the-mill pollution as well.
Here are some eye-popping factoids from the Times’ investigation:
–The digital warehouses of the Internet consume a staggering 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.
–Data centers running 24/7 only use about 10 percent of the power they consume for their computations–an incredible 90 percent of the electricity they devour is wasted.
–The average data center uses more electricity than is needed to power a medium-sized town.
–To guard against power failures, major data centers rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust, a decidedly 19th-century form of pollution.
–Many data facilities supplement their air-conditioning units with hundreds of fans to keep server connections from overheating and melting.
–In many data centers, servers are loaded with applications and left to run indefinitely, even after nearly all the users have vanished or new versions of the same programs are running elsewhere.
According to the Times article, the wasteful habits at data centers took hold in the infancy of the Internet in the 1990s. Because early software operating systems were not reliable and often crashed, computer technicians seldom ran more than one application on each server and kept the machines on around the clock, no matter how sporadically that application might be called upon.
Apparently, the data center geeks never weaned themselves off this power jones, even as consumers were lectured by government energy watchdogs to turn off their computers when they weren’t using them.
There’s plenty more to tell you about, but we’re going to power down our MacBook right now so there’s enough juice to keep the street lights on for the ride home. To absorb the rest of the gory details from this lengthy tome in the Times, perhaps it might be best to grab a print copy of Sunday’s paper and find a comfortable chair. Do us a favor and don’t turn on the lamp.
Candles will suffice.