Sunday, June 24, 2018
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Revisiting the Cloud's Dirty Little Secret
Walter Salm, Editor

The other day, a new icon appeared on my smartphone's screen: a puffy white cloud on a red background. Like it or not, the cloud has become a part of my daily life, which had been true long before that new icon appeared on my phone. Selecting the icon takes me to Verizon's Cloud, where I am offered all sorts of services that I really don't need or want, and I find my self longing for the simplicity of my wife's POT (plain old telephone). Yet, a POT would not give me my favorite team's latest score, nor would it divulge that they are currently in first place (Let's go METS!). I was dismayed to find that my Verizon Cloud was storing several photos of my cat which could have been stored quite easily on my phone's very ample and vastly underutilized flash storage space. But no, it went to the cloud because I took the pics on my phone instead of with one of my two Nikons.

Cloud computing; it's nice to have, but in fact is just one more example of resource-damaging Internet overkill. Unless we work for Google or Facebook or Amazon or Microsoft, most of us are blissfully unaware of the enormous infrastructure that has grown up to support the Internet. Large service providers like Google operate huge data centers housed in warehouse-like buildings, and these systems are kept running at 100 percent capacity all of the time, even though only 5 or 10 percent of the system is in actual use at any one time. This is because these large providers live in constant fear of being hit by a sudden, large demand that could cause a system-wide crash. They're not just worry-warts; such monumental crashes have already happened, and more than once.

One of the biggest energy hogs is the need to keep the system cool. This calls for an air-conditioning system that blows frigid air through the stacks and stacks of servers stretching almost to the buildings' high ceilings. The servers are power hogs and the cooling systems only add to the energy consumption. To make matters worse, because these server centers cannot afford a power outage, Diesel emergency generators are kept running on standby to provide instant takeover in the event of a power failure. Some of the major players claim to be using energy from renewable or sustainable sources, but this "green" energy accounts for less then five percent of the total used by any one provider. For the huge remaining balance, we are looking at a huge carbon footprint.

Internet-supporting data centers worldwide today consume over an estimated 58 gigawatts of energy — the equivalent output of about 50 to 60 nuclear power plants. And because there's the constant worry about losing grid power, diesel emergency generators are kept idling for instant switchover. This adds significantly to the data centers' carbon footprint, already far surpassing that of many industrial manufacturing facilities.

How many of these energy hogging data centers are there worldwide? Good question. Estimates vary, but a likely figure is 6 million or more. And of course, there's the question of what counts as a major data center. If there's a diesel generator idling nearby, it probably qualifies, and their numbers are still growing. They store everything: all of the daily transactions for Wall Street, all of Uncle Siegfried's vacation pictures and videos, and even the contents of U.S.Tech for the last 10 years. Every tweet, every Facebook "like" for somebody's new picture or hairdo, or restaurant meal, every email, every attached document and all those YouTube videos reside in a server, somewhere. And that server is probably in a huge, barn-like facility that has several diesel generators idling in the background, along with a massive cooling system.

Is there an equitable solution to this wasteful use of planet Earth's resources? Yes and no. I personally dislike entrusting all of my digital files, photos, family and business stuff to a "cloud" — even though I know that cloud is a high-tech server in a data center somewhere in California or Virginia or Illinois, and is probably perfectly safe — most of the time. It's bad enough that I have to rely on Google for my email and on Comcast for my connectivity. I finally had to give up on Verizon for my Internet; it just wasn't doing the job for me. Google does have catastrophic crashes every so often, and they're not alone in this regard. All you need are a few hundred hackers pestering a service all at the same time. Instead, I am surrounded by large-capacity hard disk drives, and it's rare that I lose something because of a system crash. On the other hand, I lost a great deal of stored data six years ago when my motherboard blew out and took two HDDs with it — my main hard disk and my external backup as well. Did that catastrophe send me running to embrace the Cloud? Not even remotely, because I still have an ingrained basic distrust of off-site storage that's run by somebody else. And it's hard to say "no" to the extraordinarily inexpensive mass storage that's available these days in the computer department of any Costco.  

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