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Environmental Impact of Data Centers:

This is the era of information. With the advent of internet, the world has come closer than ever before. But with positive innovation there is an underlying flip side of it. As we are getting more data-oriented, the need of keeping the data intact and storing it in proper place is the utmost important factor of modern days. IT behemoths have either installed huge data centers across the world or they are in partnership with other organizations to keep their data intact and secured. Starting around 2011, the press and social activists started focusing on data centers, putting the weight on industry pioneers like Apple, Microsoft, and Google to make them properly utilize their energy sources. Till that time, people were not much aware of the environmental impact of the data centers but after the extensive press coverage, people got familiar with the issue of massive energy consumption and detrimental effect on the environment due to the operation of data centers.

The Impact of Data Centers:

According to the estimates, by the year 2020, 35 zettabytes (1 Zettabyte = 1 Trillion GBs) of data will be produced. 90% of the present data has been generated in the last two years and it is increasing exponentially. Data centers have the capacity to consume power of small US towns and it can be high up to 9 WalMart stores. 17% of the total carbon footprint is due to the massive data centers. As per the estimates, on an average, the word’s data centers consume up to 30 billion watts of electricity which is equal to 30 nuclear plants. Data centers are spread across several miles as Google has 13 data centers, Facebook has 5 and Microsoft has 7. Microsoft’s Chicago data center is situated in more than 700,000 square feet which comprises of staggering 224,380 servers. The data centers sit on huge area and the surrounding neighborhood invariably get affected by it. The massive amount of solid and liquid waste produced by the data centers impact the surroundings.

The coolant is made of Freon which is a part of halocarbon family. These are mildly toxic and can be a minor cause for ozone depletion. These materials do have Global Warming Potential (GWP) which needs to be reduced drastically. The data centers also run on the diesel fuel and need massive amount of it to cool the servers by producing the required energy. Green House Data Used 6,347 gallons of diesel fuel in Wyoming in the year 2014. That’s enormous 140,903.4 pounds of carbon dioxide. Apart from that, the electronic waste produced by the data centers are also of significant amount as it houses more than thousands of servers and numerous computers which have limited time span of 3 to 5 years and need to be updated and modified in regular intervals. Any data centers more than 7 years old, is marked as outdated. The amount of electronic waste produced by the data centers need to be recycled or reused due to their high toxic ingredients.

Steps taken by the organizations:

Organizations are gearing up for the change and poised for drastic reduction of waste products. Organizations such as Google, Microsoft are pioneers in this arena and have taken proactive measures to make sure that the waste produced by the data centers are under control. For instance, Google has already invested $1 billion US dollars in the overhaul of the data centers and upgrade the energy sources. As a result, 34% of the data centers are now operating on renewable and green energy source. Microsoft has gone a step further by recycling 99% of the waste produced by the data centers and installing the non-polluting water coolants to reduce the carbon footprint. Facebook is running the old data centers on hydroelectric power and new centers are being upgraded to run on wind energy source.

Steps are being taken by the organizations and changes are taking place across the world due to the green movement. Notwithstanding the positive changes, it should be kept in mind it needs constant upgradation and monitoring which will take its due course of time. The changes made by the corporate giants need to be emulated by other organizations and a strict guideline & policy need to be built which must be taken as the yardstick of quality for the data centers.

-Abhijit Chatterjee, A technology connoisseur and an enthusiast of breakthrough innovation.

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