With millions of photos, videos, and other digital media upload to the cloud hourly, the usage of data storage centres across the globe to facilitate this is taking its toll on the environment, and Covid-19 has only added fuel to the fire.
Source: Butterfly Labs
Cloud Data Volumes Surge
Over the past 18 months, the usage of cloud storage services, such as iCloud for Apple, have seen a rapid increase in the volume of data stored. In December 2020, Cybersecurity Ventures predicted that the total amount of data stored in the cloud “including public cloud operated by vendors and social media companies (eg Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, etc.), government-owned cloud, private cloud (owned by mid-to-large-sized corporations), and cloud storage providers- will reach 100 zettabytes by 2025, or 50% of the world’s data at that time. This is up from approximately 25% stored in the cloud in 2015.”[i] The researchers argue that the Coronavirus pandemic has fuelled the pace of migration to the cloud. Particularly for enterprise, accelerating digital transformation during COVID has not just been a necessity, but a matter of survival.
This surge can be reflected in the financial success of major cloud services providers. According to Datanami “AWS quarterly revenue since the start of COVID has been on an accelerated pace, reaching nearly $15 billion in the most recent quarter. Microsoft reported 51% growth in Azure for the for the quarter ended June 30, to $7.8 billion for its “intelligent cloud” segment.”[ii]
What is the Cloud, and What are its Use Cases?
Cloud computing is an increasingly depended upon, and fundamental component within the process of delivering of computing services via the internet. Essentially, the Cloud is an off-site service that can be accessed either through the public internet or a dedicated private network connection. Examples of both consumer and enterprise use cases for cloud include the following:
- - Allows for storage off-site that can be accessed from any device, anywhere.
- - single location and significant storage capabilities for data.
- applications and software can be stored and run from the cloud, thus updates are implemented within the cloud, negating the need to apply time consuming updates on each individual machine (particularly important for enterprises).
- Data can be unified and stored in one place, this then allows machine learning and AI to be used in data analytics.
Cloud computing is beneficial for businesses, in that it eliminates the capital expense of buying hardware and software, further it removes the cost of setting up and running on-site data centres (as such there is no need for on-site servers, round-the-clock electricity usage to power and cooling equipment, and no need for infrastructure management.
How are Consumers Driving Demand?
As discussed prior, consumers particularly utilise cloud storage due to the fact that it delivers a cost-effective, scalable alternative to storing files on external hard drives or devices themselves. As computer and mobile hard drives can only store a finite amount of data, when users run out of storage, they need to transfer files to an external storage device, or alternatively upload data to the cloud. Many of us take photos on our mobile devices, with these linked to an often free cloud storage service such as iCloud or Samsung Cloud. Most are unaware that our unwanted photographs and videos are automatically sent across to these cloud datacentres as backup. Further, our uploading of content to social media sites creates additional data to be stored on their own servers. According to Domo every minute 240,000 photos are shared on Facebook, and 65,000 on Instagram.[iii] That’s almost half a billion photos added to these two social media platforms, per day.
Why Should we Be Concerned, and How are Cloud Service Providers addressing the Issue?
Given the huge volumes of data being sent to the cloud, it is unsurprising that the requirement for electricity, as well as computing equipment to facilitate demand is also on the rise. It is estimated that in 2020 data centres accounted for 1% of global energy usage[iv] lessened in part by rapid improvements in energy efficiency which have helped to limit growth in energy demand. Further, data centres themselves create vast amounts of heat, meaning electricity-hungry cooling systems must also be in place.
Greenpeace argues that, from its estimates “by 2025, the technology sector could consume 20% of the world’s total electricity; this increase from 7% currently (2019) is attributed to the expansion of cloud computing and the further development of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, which require a great deal of computing power.”[v]
In Ireland for example, as of 2021, data centres already account for 11% of Irish Electric grid capacity, with this forecast to reach 28% of grid capacity by the end of the decade (based on existing connections). Yet, “If all other data centres proposed for Ireland are allowed, their energy use would comprise 70 percent of capacity on the national grid”[vi] by 2030.
“In the last four years alone the annual increase in electricity usage by data centres is equivalent to adding 140,000 homes to the national grid every year. An average data centre with a load of 60 MW would be comparable to the load usage of a city such as Kilkenny (population 22,000).”[vii]
Amazon Data Centre near Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia (2015)
Source: Carolina Journal
One positive is that the major cloud providers who ultimately represent the bulk of cloud operations, (e.g. Amazon, Microsoft, and Google) have committed to sourcing the majority of their electricity usage from renewable means, yet as Wired reported in 2019, these players still have some way to go to address concerns:
- “Without RECs (renewable energy credit- an accounting or tracking mechanism for solar, wind, and other green energies as they flow into the power grid), Microsoft’s data centers run on 60 percent renewable electricity and the company plans to boost this to 70 percent renewable energy by 2023.
- Google says it is the ‘largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world,’ and in September 2019 it increased its renewable energy portfolio by 40 percent through power purchase agreements with utilities around the world. However, in some parts of the world with little to no renewable energy installations, Google’s data centers still rely on fossil fuels. To atone, the company purchases RECs.
- Some of Amazon’s largest data centers are powered by only 12 percent renewable energy. In Virginia, which supports the core of Amazon’s cloud infrastructure, AWS increased its operations by 59 percent in the last two years without adding any new renewable energy, according to a Greenpeace report.”[viii]
With cloud usage only set to increase over the next decade, energy usage by data centres, as well as the demand for expansion in capacity poses an environmental concern. Much focus will be placed on market leaders as to how they plan to address the growing demand for cloud operations.