Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Publication Date: 10/1/2012
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The Cloud's Dirty Little Secret
Walter Salm, Editor
Cloud computing is just another aspect of the Internet that has become very popular. 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, most of us are blissfully unaware of the enormous infrastructure that has grown up to support the Internet. It's far more than a bunch of desktop computer towers hooked together. Large service providers like Google operate huge data centers housed in warehouse-like buildings, and these systems are kept running at 100 percent all of the time, even though only 5 or 10 percent of the system is in actual use. These large providers live in constant fear of being hit by a sudden, large demand that can 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 here is the need to keep the system cool. According to a recent report in the New York Times, when Facebook had its first growth spurt, employees scoured all the Walgreen's drug stores in Silicon Valley to buy fans to help with the system's cooling. Facebook has since outgrown that tiny first facility and has a state-of-the-art cooling system in place in its expanded headquarters. But, according to the Times article, Internet-supporting data centers worldwide today consume over 30 gigawatts of energy — the equivalent output of 30 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.

There are reportedly more than 3 million of these data centers worldwide, and they're 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, every e-mail, every attached document and all those You-Tube 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. It's bad enough that I have to rely on Google for my e-mail and on AT&T 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 two 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. I'm about to upgrade that capability once again, now that CostCo is offering a USB 3 external HDD with 3TB capacity for $130.

The data centers quite naturally have to operate in the most cost-effective way, and that means using constantly rotating flywheels, large collections of batteries, and the Diesel generators as a last resort. After all, power failures do happen, for any number of reasons. Many of these centers operate well outside of their government permit specs, and some with no permits at all. And it's often unclear about which government agency is responsible for their oversight. But wait, these are high tech centers; how about a high-tech solution? There are quiet-running environmentally-friendly fuel cell power systems that are available at a relatively reachable cost with subsidies from the Department of Energy. Yes, they're more costly than equivalent Diesel generators, but they work on demand, all the time, every time. They are economical enough to use on a continuing basis as primary power sources. These fuel cell systems run from readily available methane (natural gas). While methane-fueled cells give off some carbon dioxide, all that's needed is to plant a few trees around them, and that takes care of whatever carbon footprint they might create. This solution has been embraced by credit-card clearing houses (giant banking centers) which had previously had problems with balky non-starting emergency Diesel generators. If it works profitably for them, wrhy not for the world's dirty data centers? In the meantime, I'm still avoiding the Cloud; I simply don't trust it.  

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