In most cases we advocate cloud-based online backup as a secure and efficient means of storing your protected data. Since cloud storage providers make use of energy-hungry and elaborate co-location data centres, these facilities can have a significant impact on the environment as the demand for cloud storage grows.
The Dark Side of Data Centres
Although a lot of focus is placed on greenhouse gas emissions of data centres, their impact on the environment goes beyond that. An article by Green House Data highlighted some of the pollutants that seldom get the attention it deserves:
- Batteries. Large batteries used in UPSs are usually made of lead-acid (containing heavy metals) or nickel-metal hydride (without heavy metals). Both have limited lifespans and need to be disposed of carefully to avoid disastrous effects on the environment.
- Coolants. In order to maintain ambient temperatures at favourable levels, coolants are circulated through a facility. However, these chemicals, such as Freon/halocarbon or chlorofluorocarbons, are toxic and have a negative effect on atmospheric ozone levels.
- Detergents. Some specialised cleaning solutions that are used for their anti-static properties (to help keep data centres dust-free) are toxic, containing the likes of ammonia and chlorine.
- Electronic waste and packaging. As we know, computer hardware gets upgraded ever so often resulting in tons of components such as circuit boards and plastic casings being thrown out to landfill sites, or even dumped offshore.
- Fire retardants. Even the chemicals found in fire extinguishers can be harmful to the environment if handled irresponsibly. It could end up in rain water run-off.
Innovative Approaches to the Environment
But fortunately the data centre giants are listening and have started taking steps to prevent further exposure of the environment to hazardous materials and practices. Some of their key claims are mentioned below:
Apple are taking a proactive approach:
- Regarding the sustainability of resources: “Over 99 percent of the paper in our packaging is recycled or sustainable.”
- About using safer materials: “We’ve taken mercury and arsenic out of our screens and lead out of the solder we use.”
- And the effect on climate change: “And our data centres around the world run on 100 percent clean energy and power billions of iMessages, answers from Siri, and song downloads from iTunes.”
They’re addressing the design of their data centres by implementing these measures:
- Measuring the Power Usage Effectiveness which “…compares the amount of non-computing “overhead” energy (like cooling and power distribution) to the amount of energy used to power our actual machines.”
- Innovative cooling:
- Air flow techniques. “Keeping the internal temperature of a data centre at the right level… [by using] simple, cost-effective tactics (like sealing sheet metal and hanging plastic curtains) to prevent hot air from mixing with the cold.”
- Turn up the thermostat. “It’s a myth that data centres need to be kept chilly in order for the equipment to run properly.”
- Use free cooling. “This is done by using the natural environment to cool the equipment, such as cold outside air, water evaporation or thermal reservoirs.”
Microsoft suggest that their customers move from using local/on-site data centres to their cloud-based offerings: “Moving to our cloud services can help businesses reduce energy use by 30 to 90 percent per user versus running on-premise services,” which evidenced by this Cloud Computing and Sustainability report.
Corporate Social Responsibility
The sad fact is that 2% of greenhouse gas emissions are now being produced by data centres – this is on par with pollution generated by the aviation industry!
So, as part of your company’s corporate social responsibility, whether you’re developing communications infrastructure in under-developed regions, upgrading an existing data centre, or merely making use of cloud services, being aware of the environment will ensure that your data backups contribute to the betterment of the environment in some small way instead of aiding in its demise.