Is IT 'green' or are we doing more damage?

I had the pleasure of being the MC at a tech conference recently.

During one particular panel session, the discussion centred around the advantages of high-speed connectivity and what we are now doing differently because of this paradigm shift.

Not surprisingly the issue of climate change was raised and everyone felt quite good about themselves with the tech sector making a positive contribution with such items as video conferencing to reduce the amount of travel needed, particularly air travel, and reducing paper requirements by aiming for paper less (not paperless) offices.

Even the way a technician now services a client was discussed with the likelihood that a problem is more likely to be solved from within the service office reducing truck rolls.

While we were all patting ourselves on the back and thinking about how we were helping solve the largest problem the planet will see this century, an audience member asked a question that was so good that I promised her I would dedicate a column to the concept.

With the explosion of social media sites and online tools, all of the servers required that live somewhere in the cloud must be consuming significant resources and producing an incredible amount of greenhouse gases.

She had an excellent point.

For a start, we should examine that explosion. The Internet in its current form came to Australia in 1989. YouTube had its first video upload in 2005. There are now more than 300 hours of video uploaded every minute. Facebook started in 2004. There are now 2.4 billion users. Instagram has over one billion active users.

It didn't exist last decade. Twitter and LinkedIn started in 2006 and 2003 respectively. Between them they have almost 700 million users. The world has changed dramatically in the last thirty years.

All of those cat videos and pictures of bacon and eggs arranged 'just so' have to be stored somewhere. "In the cloud," I hear you say. Correct - but the cloud has a home. Data centres all over the world.

The best estimate is that there are 80 million servers across the world powering the Internet. At a very rough estimation, that would equate to 600TWh per year of electricity consumption or almost three per cent of the total world consumption.

Wow! Admittedly there is movement towards producing more and more electricity with renewable methods but still, WOW! To give you an idea, that is 100,000 wind turbines!

On the flip side is the reduction in the number of on-site servers across the world. Before our current connectivity options, a business would install an expensive and power-hungry server at each location and it would be utilised for a part of the day but for a large part of the day it sat idle.

There is a transition away from those servers to servers that are hosted in data centres which are used more efficiently.

Furthermore, apps and services are replacing dedicated services running on a physical server. Does it equate to a saving of 80 million servers?

Not even close, but there is a small saving there. I haven't even started to calculate the resources utilised in building the physical equipment and mining the resources required.

There is an interesting research project for a PhD student here.

All the savings in travel and paper and efficiency versus the total resources utilised and power required to run the connected world we live in.

From a pure environmental perspective, is IT climate change friendly or doing more damage than we wish to admit?

Tell me if you think we can claim IT as 'green' at ask@techtalk.digital.

  • Mathew Dickerson is the founder of regional tech and communications company Axxis Technology. Contact him at ask@techtalk.digital.