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Henrik Chulu

Data centres are giant airliners never needing to refuel

Photo: Trinity Moss // unsplash

The environmental impact and energy costs of digital infrastructures can be mitigated by decentralising the data, and giving users control.

Behind the screens of our devices, multiple giant, globe-spanning infrastructures collect as much information as possible about our everyday digital lives, while in turn, giving us access to the information we request from them.

One way to define ‘infrastructure’ is as something you don’t notice until it breaks down. Infrastructure is invisible when it functions normally. We do, however, notice when this digital infrastructure breaks down and can no longer access the information we need, or when it is broken into and disrupted by cyberattacks, or internet shutdowns.

Meanwhile, there’s a larger scale breakdown occurring, but it’s happening so slowly we hardly notice it at all. It’s not the infrastructure that’s breaking down, but the environment all around us. And the data centre industry has an enormous effect on this environmental breakdown.

It is the expressed mission of polypoly to become the infrastructure of a new, distinctly European digital economy. This mission is born from the realisation that the trajectory of the digital infrastructure we currently rely on is not sustainable — from an environmental, economic, social, or business perspective. It is starting to break down.

A carbon footprint on par with the aviation industry

While estimates vary, the data centre industry currently consumes three to five percent of the world’s electricity, and is responsible for approximately two percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

The global infrastructure that works invisibly behind our touch screens contributes to the oncoming climate catastrophe as much as the global aviation industry. A data centre is like a gigantic airliner that flies through the clouds with all of our data onboard, and never needs to land to refuel.

Power-usage effectiveness (PUE) has been used since 2006 across the data centre industry to measure, manage, and compete over the energy efficiency of data centres. It measures the amount of electricity used by the actual servers and IT machinery of a data centre in relation to how much power the facility consumes as a whole. When the PUE score reaches 1.0, it means all power is used for computing. But this number only measures what the energy is used for inside the centre, and not where the energy comes from, how it is generated, or even how much energy is actually used.

In 2018, according to their own figures, Google alone used 10.1 terawatt hours of electricity. If the company was added to the global rank of countries based on total energy consumption, it would come in 91st place — just above Uruguay.

A lot of electricity is required to run the numerous servers which are part of any data centre. And just like the data centre industry as a whole contributes to global warming, each data centre in itself produces a lot of heat. A major factor in the energy cost of data infrastructure is cooling these data centres and diverting the excess heat. This has led to big companies building their new facilities in colder climates — for example, one of Facebook’s data centres in Luleå, Sweden, and another one under construction in Odense, Denmark.

Similarly, Iceland, with its combination of chilly weather and cheap renewable energy, has poised itself as a haven for data centres.

However, a large part of the recent data centre explosion in Iceland is due to bitcoin and blockchain-based companies. Both bitcoin and blockchain, the latter being a decentralised data infrastructure, consume a massive amount of power and have corresponding environmental impacts. And most bitcoin farms elsewhere on the planet are less likely to invest in green energy solutions than PR-sensitive corporations like Google, Facebook or the Icelandic data centres catering to cryptocurrency companies.

Green data centres solve only one part of the problem

Since 2010, Greenpeace has campaigned internationally, putting pressure on technology companies to switch their operations to renewable energy — and with a great deal of success. Giants such as Apple, Facebook, and Google are now investing in renewable energy to power their data centres, and in some cases investing in wind and solar farms of their own. 

From the corporate side, there are business arguments for this switch, beyond the obvious PR ones. As infrastructure journalist Ingrid Burrington writes

“Tech companies aren’t underwriting wind turbines for their data centres or embracing renewable energy solely out of some altruistic concern for the environment or fear of bad press. If that were the case, they’d be using their billions in profit to build wind turbines to power the grids of entire cities, not just cancelling out their own environmental impact.”

She notes that, while it might be cheaper in the short term, power from fossil fuels, like coal, are relying on volatile commodities whose market prices can vary wildly, leading to fluctuating energy costs. Renewable energy on the other hand, is unaffected by global market speculation. Even if it’s slightly more expensive, it’s easier to plan for in the long term.

Giants investing in renewable energy solve only one part of the environmental impact of the data industry. First, they only represent a small part of the entire big data ecosystem, albeit the most public facing one. Greenpeace IT analyst Gary Cook told The Guardian in 2017, that only 20% of the energy used to power data centres in the world comes from renewable energy, while fossil fuels account for the remaining 80%.

Secondly, there are much wider environmental issues not solved by giants going green. Land use should be factored in, as data centres take up physical space and requires public infrastructure beyond just electricity and water for cooling. Then, there are the supply chains for raw materials like rare earth minerals used to manufacture the IT equipment. These get dug out of mines that leave a massive lasting imprint on physical landscapes and human communities, often in the Global South. This is similar to where a lot of e-waste ends up at the end of the technology life cycle.

Finally, from the business perspective, there is the raw cost issue at the core of the problem. As the amount of data being collected, stored, and processed about us continues to rise, the energy requirements, and thus the carbon footprint of data centres, also grows. Switching to renewable energy sources does not reduce the cost of collecting, storing, and processing an ever increasing amount of data. And while the industry is doing what it can to make data centres more energy efficient, they still have to keep up with what some predict to be exponential growth in the amount of data in the world. As the amount of data grows, the cost of running data centres therefore go irreversibly up.

Data is the fossil fuel of the technology industry

polypoly’s goal is to change the current trajectory to environmental breakdown by revolutionising the way businesses understand and handle personal data. Instead of scrambling to collect more of it, like digging up more fossil fuels to power the engines of the digital market, the guiding idea of the company is that companies can do more with less. In fact, the less data a business has to collect, store and process, the lower the costs. Companies that reduce their data dependency not only reduce their power usage, and thereby their environmental impact, but also reduce operational expenses.

Thorsten Dittmar, founder of polypoly says;

“We have researched the cost structure of the big tech companies. In our analysis of their main weaknesses, all of them have one thing in common, and it’s something they can’t change anymore. That is the data centres, the centralised storage of data. This will become more and more expensive, mainly because of the energy costs. Of course there’s optimisation, they can buy green energy, and build their data centres where they can buy the energy cheaper than in San Francisco. At the end of the day, the energy costs become higher and higher.”

The energy costs of running and cooling the equipment at data centres is the main component of the rising information technology operational expenditures (or ‘IT OpEx’ in management vocabulary) for companies that collect, store and process data in a centralised manner. But the costs of establishing the infrastructure (so-called capital expenditures or ‘CapEx’) are in and of themselves staggering.

“Google alone invested 13 billion dollars last year in data centres. The more data they collect, and the more they want to use artificial intelligence, the more expensive it will get over time,” says Thorsten.

Rather than mining mountains of collected user data in a centralised data centre, polypoly turns the digital services model on its head. Users store their own data locally on their devices in their own polyPod — polypoly’s core product. It is a data safe under control by the user, but also a platform for running algorithmic computations that the company refers to as ‘features’.

Instead of processing massive amounts of user data in the same place at the same time, polypoly makes a special purpose query language available, where a company offering digital services can send an algorithmic question (e.g. “would you like to see an ad for a car?”) that the user can choose to answer or not based on the data they have on their own device (e.g. “no thanks, I bike to work every day, but I do need a new front tire”). It’s also possible for researchers to query populations at large, without having to gather, store, and protect the data themselves.

The economic benefit of this model, and the business case for both polypoly and their partners, is that it saves money for everyone involved. Overseas data giants cannot compete with this approach while having to maintain infrastructures that keep growing — not only in the amount of data they handle, but also the amount of energy they require to function.

“The IT OpEx costs for us are trending towards zero because the system is 100% decentralised. It doesn’t matter how much these companies are optimising their IT OpEx cost. It can’t be lower than zero,” says Thorsten.