In episode 6 of Traceroute, we address arguably the most critical component of them all: sustainability. As demand for data rises, so too does our environmental impact, and in turn, the need to rapidly course correct to sustain rapid expansion without taking a toll on our planet. But it’s not just a matter of mitigating individual consumption—like streaming YouTube & Netflix–by recycling resources and using clean energy. The social and political ramifications of the internet are reshaping our society more rapidly than we can keep up with, demanding that we look at internet development with a sense of personal responsibility.
We shipped I think it was one hundred Teslas worth of weight of servers. And, you know, some of that is a little cringe to me because I think of the carbon impact on the planet.
We're spewing a ton of waste at the back end. The manufacturing process has this huge carbon impact
There's a lot of work in power and energy for sustainability and renewables.
Yes, sustainability is a big deal and the microprocessors of past did not have to worry about that. Adelson What about the environmental issue that this creates? whether it's the largest enterprises building data centers or it's the equinoxes, this is a serious issue that they face every day and they have to try and innovate ways around.
GRACE: This is Traceroute [rowt]...
a podcast about the inner workings of our digital world - all the PHYSICAL STUFF that most of us never have to think about. In a world that is increasingly defined by digital…. We look at the real people and services building, maintaining, and scaling the internet.
I’m your host, Grace Ewura-Esi. a technical storyteller and product evangelist at Equinix.
In this episode: SUSTAINABILITY.
In those giant data centers that we’ve been talking about - the ones built on open land in remote corners of the US, covering millions of square feet each... Incredible things are happening. These data centers are powering the cloud… which is supporting all of our internet browsing…a huge part of the American economy. Demand for more data storage grows every day not just here but around the world. For decades, some of the industry’s brightest minds have found ways to make transistors smaller and more efficient - so that every processors tower in every data center out there can hold more stuff - and get it to us when we need it, faster and faster.
All of that building… takes a toll. An environmental one.
When you think about sort of what I call the the negative underbelly or the the negative, you know, the down side or dirty underbelly of this industry it's a little bit out of sight. Out of mind.
People think, oh, it just things just all magically running, but they don't see these massive data centers like that are literally just booming everywhere around the world.
Ali Fenn is the President at IT Renew, and she’s been building tech companies for two decades. She says there are a few main areas we should be focused on for infrastructure sustainability.
The first one is absolutely energy. Right. We these data centers consume a tremendous amount of energy. By and large, people are trying to get to greener grids. That's like, you know, the first inning. Right. We have to assume success at that and we have to keep going there. Second, there are materials to consider.
There's obviously the carbon impact of manufacturing, but there's also the fact that by many stretches we are on on track to exhaust the minerals from the planet, then we have a bigger problem. Then there’s the Manufacturing process… from mining, manufacturing, assembly, logistics, transportation, packaging, runtime, energy through end of life, sorting, shredding, smelting, recycling processes and says, where is the where is the carbon being being used as part of this whole process? If manufacturing has such a massive toll, let's defer as much of it as possible The production process is one thing… but there's a backend materials problem, which is we're also spewing 50 million plus tons of waste into the into the waste streams every year. And that number is projected to get to 75 million within the next three to four years. So we have we're we're raping and pillaging at the front end. We're spewing a ton of waste at the back end. The manufacturing process has this huge carbon impact. So let's let's think about a less wasteful, less linear stream and say let's let's at least maximize the value we can get out of all that stuff. Right. So it all comes together in kind of a very nice, you know, pun intended circular fashion. As we look into the future of the internet infrastructure industry, we need to ask: Is it environmentally sustainable?
The first step to sustainability is with the materials used to build computers… data centers… and all the infrastructure we need to make this seemingly invisible internet ecosystem run.
Ali Fenn worked in the technology infrastructure space for years without giving a ton of thought to its environmental impacts.
I was probably, like many people, kind of not consciously aware of the the negative consequence of all this equipment for a long time from a sustainability perspective, despite having spent time at places like Seagate, which ships just millions and millions of drives every quarter, and knowing that those things get shredded and have a have an incredible cost associated with them] About five years ago, her perspective started to change. She took a top job with IT Renew - a company that promotes reuse of data center hardware. It was a good time for a career shift - because the demand for infrastructure was growing. And there was a lot more STUFF getting made - and piling up when data centers upgraded.
The server market globally is like almost 100 billion dollars a year. Right. I mean, it's a massive, massive market. The entire data verse is growing, doubling every year. We're on track for something like seventy five zettabytes of data created and stored and 5G and Iot and Edge. The public cloud companies, obviously, these guys have many, many millions of servers in their fleets. They're turning those things over roughly every three years.
It's a lot of stuff and it's stuff that has a tremendous amount of remaining life on it. Hyperscalers like Microsoft, Facebook, Google and more have helped demand explode. But that demand is also changing. Open hardware is becoming the norm.
So lots of different manufacturers can build it. Lots of systems integrators can work with it. Lots of different software companies can do certifications on it and then all commodity standardized parts. So you don't have I need to have this specific thing from this specific vendor in this very vertically integrated stack. You can say, oh, I need hard drives. They they come from lots of places. I need, you know, open systems firmware so that I can update it. And what that does from a sustainability perspective is say I'm not locked into something that then can't be repurposed to reuse and that just automatically are much more much more readily flows into the waste stream. Instead, we can think about much more creative, different outcomes for this stuff so that we maximizing the value of it and the longevity of it] And it turns out that the very fact that these hyperscalers are using so many resources - actually helps IT Renew’s business model, extending the life of existing equipment.
So the open allows the flexibility, the adaptability, the supportability, the warranty ability, all that kind of stuff. The scale makes it viable for second life or circular solutions to be adapted, adopted in the downstream markets. Right. So so you could always buy a refurbished server from somebody. Right. But maybe you could get 10 this month or 100 next month or and maybe this model this month and next model next month. But you had no predictability of that.
But we're talking about volumes of equipment that are deployed in the in the cloud. So you're basically matching upstream and downstream based on the fact that it's open, can be transformed, can be warranted, and it's predictably available in a way that other businesses can plan their own roadmaps on. And those two things are are what it takes to keep all this stuff out of the waste stream] These forces converging actually set the stage for a pretty successful win, win, win… IT Renew can grow, and reliably deliver equipment to its partners. Those buying the equipment secondhand get high-quality, gently used servers that meet their needs. And large hyperscalers can offload slightly used equipment improving their sustainability cred. …
Every one of these big guys has made very, very big statements about their sustainability goals what what turns out to be true when you do it, a lifecycle analysis of IT equipment, is that as much as three quarters of the net carbon impact comes from before anything ever gets turned on. So it's all about supply and embodied energy. All of the carbon impact of bringing this equipment to the data center floor before you even turn it on and start to think about grids. Right. And so when they think about, oh, wait a minute, we could create, you know, secondary lives for this, we could use a circular model. They're basically all trying to figure out how do we reduce our overall collective impact on from a carbon perspective. And put really simply, circular economy is about deferring new manufacturing Still, there’s a lot of work to be done to get more companies adopting upcycling as part of their business model.
I think the biggest thing that we're tackling is really shifting the mindset towards, hey, a circular economic model, a model that is inherently about recertified equipment. Second Life equipment is not less than right. And the analogy I like to use here is there used to be a way to buy cars. That was either a new car. You could go to the BMW dealer or you could go to like, you know, like, you know, Ali's lemon shop on the corner and get buy a car. And those were the two options. But some, you know, decade or two ago there became this thing, certified preowned BMW.
And what I expect out of a certified BMW is that I get it a lot less cost, but I don't give anything up on warranty or performance or quality or any of that stuff. Right. And so that's really the mindset shift we're trying to to take in the IT industry is to say it's the same thing.
Getting data companies to reuse servers instead of tossing them in a landfill, that’s a step in the right direction… but infrastructure has other major sustainability concerns.
There are three main environmental impacts for data centers] David Mytton is a former tech entrepreneur - and now studies sustainable computing at the Center for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London. There's electricity that goes into running the data center day to day. And then the second one is the materials. And often that's a one time cost for the equipment that goes into the data center.
And then there's also water consumption and water consumption is actually linked to the first one to electricity because data centers use water in two different ways. They use it for cooling directly on site. But water is also used in electricity generation. So if you think about how a power plant works, you burn fuel to increase the temperature of the water to generate steam. And the steam then turns a turbine which generates electricity. And all the fuel that we use for that is coal and gas and also nuclear power. But it means that there's a significant amount of water that goes into the generation of the electricity that goes into the data center itself looks specifically at how much energy the computing industry uses. Energy produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
So the primary resource that's used when you're on the Internet is electricity globally. So it's computers and TV and the Internet In the internet’s ecosystem, massive data centers account for much of the overall energy use.
There are a number of different estimates for the total amount of data center energy consumption, and it ranges from about 200 terawatt hours, which is about just under one percent of global electricity, up to about 500 terawatt hours, which would be around two percent of global electricity. And it's true to say that the efficiency has improved significantly over the last 10 and 20 years. Data centers have got a lot more efficient, but there's also an interesting trend to moving to cloud computing.
And given that the majority of the electricity around the world is still generated from fossil fuels, got about five percent from wind and two and a half percent from solar, it is a major issue for climate change because the more electricity we're using, the more it has to be generated from these fuels which have a carbon output With the explosive growth of cloud computing, and smartphones, constant connectivity means massive amounts of infrastructure to build and massive amounts of electricity to power it...
These cities called data centers, which are located all around the world, and they have to be as close to the user as possible so that when you are clicking on a websites or streaming a video, it loads as quickly as possible, because it's not just the speed, it's the amount of data is transmitted. So if you think of a small video that you might have watched on a VHS tape 20 or 30 years ago and compare that to what we have today with Falke super high definition that streams instantaneously, the amount of data that's transmitted has increased significantly over that period of time, and it all has to be stored somewhere There’s some good news though - because while it takes a huge amount of energy to power data centers...
The IT sector is also one of the largest purchasers of renewable electricity. The big tech companies are number one, number two, number three on the list. And so not all of the electricity that goes into the data center is necessarily generated by fossil fuels Mytton argues that data center companies have made impressive improvements in reducing their carbon impact. But they could do a lot more.
There are three steps the tech companies have been taking and that data center operators need to take to become greener. The first of these is to offset all of the carbon that they emit through directly through the generation of electricity, say, on site with a backup generator. But more often it's through the electricity that they purchase. The second step is that you need to match all of your electricity usage with 100 percent renewables. And this is important because it's a good step, but it's not sufficient because although they are matching the electricity consumption, when you look at it on an annual basis, that doesn't actually mean that they're using 100 percent renewables second by second. And that's because they are still tying in to the local electricity grid, wherever that data center is. And so the third step to really become a green data center operator or green tech company is to use 100 percent clean energy. And that is often achieved through using power purchase agreements where the company will pay for a brand new renewable source of electricity that's close to the center as possible. That might mean setting up a wind or solar farm near the data center. Government can encourage companies to move in this direction. But many are already doing it on their own - as a way to save money and show their commitment to social responsibility. Again, scale helps.
The Amazon, Google and Microsoft have the amount of savings that they can make by implementing even just small efficiency. Improvements in their facilities mean that they are able to invest in efficiencies. That just wouldn't make sense if you had a small cabinet in your office with a couple of servers or even the larger colocation companies that have a few facilities around the world. The big advantage that the cloud providers have is that they own a lot of their facilities where they own the building and they've been able to design it from scratch. It means that they can build in the very latest technologies. They completely control everything that goes into the data center and then they control their full lifecycle of the of the facility With sustainability in mind, these companies benefit from their scale and can invest in all kinds of new programs.
Google has been able to reduce the amount of water that's being used from cooling by up to 40 percent just through machine learning and the use of their deep mind expertize from that at the company they acquired on the AI and machine learning side of things. So with no physical infrastructure, no changes to the building itself, using data and making changes to how the air conditioning works and the internal environment of the data center, they've been able to make significant savings. And by using the cloud as a small company of one or two people or even a company like Netflix, they basically inherit those improvements for free and they can benefit from billions and billions of dollars of investment in their efficient infrastructure, which a small company wouldn't be able to afford or wouldn't necessarily be worth the investment, even for a large company like Netflix Still, there are limits to what cloud companies can do on their own . For instance….
There's a limit to the ability to match your electricity usage on an annual basis with renewables just because the grid isn't 100 percent renewable. And this is one of the criticisms of that approach. And it's why is good, but it's not sufficient to match your electricity usage on an annual basis. And part of the problem is that like so many other things about infrastructure - the general public doesn’t always see the impacts of the internet on the environment.
Networking is one of those areas that is very hidden. The tech companies like to talk about how sustainable their data centers are and they are doing a really good job. But the connectivity from the data center to you at home or at work is completely outside of the scope of all of their green credentials. The networks around the world are run by a lot of different companies.
They all produce their own very different environmental reporting, sometimes no reporting at all. And all of those networks use a significant amount of electricity. And networking globally uses almost the same amount of electricity as every single data center in the world.
And yet it's completely outside of the scope of all of the green sustainability work that the tech companies are doing. It means that when Google or Microsoft can offset all of their carbon emissions, it has nothing has no impact on the network that is connecting you to them. And as our demand is only set to increase - it’s important for us to understand the consequences.
People don't realize how much impact their usage of YouTube or streaming video in general, Netflix, all of that has on the environment. And they don't really understand how much electricity goes into their usage because we don't think about it at all. We can we just switch on our computers and stream whatever we like and we try and max the quality of the video to get the best possible experience. And very few people are thinking about this because they don't really have any choice. You can't choose where you're going to stream a video based on the sustainability of where it's hosted, because usually it's only available in one one place. And so I think that's why the transparency side of things is really important, because until consumers truly understand the impact of their online habits, they won't be able to make decisions about where they're buying things or which companies they're going to host their email with.
So the question becomes whether sustainability measures put in place by tech giants can keep up with just how much energy - how much bandwidth - how much INTERNET we consumers want to consume.
Streaming video of something like 4G is two to three times more energy intensive than just using Wi-Fi. And that's because of the energy that's required to generate the radio signals that go from your phone to the telephone mast. 5G is going to be initially up to 20 times more energy intensive than 4G. But the industry is expecting that over the next five or 10 years, that will improve due to improvements in some of the the ways that the technology can work with sleep times. And. So when the networks are not being used, it will use less electricity. But 5G requires more antennas and it requires more Ariels within the antenna. 5G is being rolled out gradually. [00:33:36] Now, the use of that will start to overtake 4G at a certain point in the next couple of years, but it will still be less energy efficient. And so the improvements that we get from the older technologies are offset by the increased use of the newer technologies.
The use of that technology also increases, so the offset in the reduction of the energy that's consumed, the energy consumed, is offset by the increase in usage. And we'll see that with 5G. And as 5G gets more energy efficient, we'll be using it more because it's faster and allows you to get better latency and download and stream content, stream more content a lot faster. There’s another thing for companies to remember when it comes to climate change, says Mytton. It’s in their interest to reduce their carbon footprint - as climate change is already causing destruction of physical infrastructure. And that’s a global sustainability problem for the industry.
Climate change is going to increase the intensity of the local weather conditions that are already there. So you'll see much more much more intense storms. So the that will cause problems for the local infrastructure, cause massive amounts of disruption and flooding will be a big problem.
So just how sustainable is the internet - and the infrastructure that makes it run? Here’s an expert who is relatively optimistic about where things are going.
Defining sustainability is always hard, but if you think about it in terms of emissions per unit of output, useful work that we get from the Internet infrastructure, the Internet is actually a big sustainability bargain. Jonathan Koomey is a researcher, author, and entrepreneur. And he’s known for describing a long term trend in computing and energy efficiency called Koomey’s Law.
The useful activities that we can do per unit of emissions, that's a measure of efficiency in some sense, and the Internet, well, starting with data centers, use about one percent of the world's electricity. And I think it's a pretty good use of that one percent of the electricity. And the reason why I think that is because that one percent helps us make the other 99 percent of the electricity and all the fuels a lot more efficient in general, the data center industry has done a good job of becoming more efficient rapidly and also sourcing renewable power so that what power they do use is relatively low impact from an environmental perspective Koomey has also looked at how much energy data centers use over time.
Another surprising thing to most folks is that from 2010 to 2018, there hasn't been much growth at all in the electricity used by data centers. It's been basically flat, even though the number of compute instances, which is a measure of computing output, has gone up about six fold. So we've increased the output of data centers even as we've kept the electricity is flat. And that's because we're increasing the efficiency of these data centers about as fast as the output is going up. Like Mytton, Koomey sees these kinds of efficiencies as making sense for companies not just in terms of sustainability - but for their bottom line.
the higher efficiency allows them to deliver more services more cheaply. So you're getting the higher efficiency, but you're also getting a better business outcome. And these big companies also have economies of scale. If you can spread that fixed costs over more computations than the cost for computation goes down.
There's a kind of fixed amount of energy use you need just to have the server around and available. And if that server is running at one percent utilization or two percent utilization, not only is it a waste of energy, but it's also a big waste of capital because this piece of capital, it's very expensive to own and run, is not doing all the tasks that it could be doing. And so in in the hyperscale facilities, they don't have server huggers. So that means that in a in a hyperscale facility, you might have 30 or 40 percent utilization when in a corporate facility you might have three or four percent. Bigger companies also benefit from scale in other ways.
They're starting to experiment with this, they could say, well, electricity is really expensive now in California. I'm going to shift some loads up to the northwest where electricity is a lot cheaper right now. It’s kind of the way ride sharing services work - by finding slack - empty cars, or in this case empty computer capacity - and shifting users to that area.
So it's like capital that's sitting around. And the idea is that they're going to make better use of that capital. And so that means that this big shift to hyperscale has had a variety of benefits beyond just the straight economies of scale Once again, innovation helps drive scale… and scale fuels innovation.
These companies work hard at it. And then the customer benefit, if you will, of sourcing renewable power led to more and more companies doing that in a sophisticated way. That led to a lot more solar and wind being installed than would have been installed otherwise But as global demand grows, will data centers start eating up a greater percentage of global power?
The one percent, whether that goes up or down, is a tug of war between increases in demand for computing services. [00:23:38] Versus increases in efficiency, and so for the last eight or so, eight or 10 years, that tug of war has been about an equal draw like you. You've seen the increase in computing demand, you've seen the increase in efficiency, and they more or less cancel each other out. That's the the been the recent history, it's always possible for there have been new demands that we don't expect. It's also possible for there to be efficiency improvements that perhaps were not anticipated. And so whether it's going to go up or down, I don't know. But it's certainly not going to become 10 or 20 or 30 percent. Koomey says that while the growth of internet infrastructure means more energy use… the innovations will help us meet sustainability goals.
If we want to continue to improve the efficiency of the society, if we want to reduce emissions, that information technology is actually our ace in the hole.
It's the thing that prior energy transitions didn't have. And we can now put sensors everywhere. We can measure things we could never measure before. That means we can optimize things that we could never optimize before. He cites a number of examples of ways we are actually making less STUFF than we used to.
We can substitute smarts for parts. [00:38:51] And then there's dematerialization some moving bits instead of moving atoms. We're also able to avoid sending material goods so I can send you a PDF file that has the exact replication of this paper instead of sending you the paper. So Amory Lovins loves to say move the electrons, leave the heavy nuclei at home.
So we’re making progress…. but we need to do a lot more in the next decade or so… through innovation ...regulation… and measured changes in social behavior. Silicon Valley is a place of innovation. And just as technology minds have given us computers… the internet… smartphones. They could also deliver on sustainability promises. That means being more efficient with materials… recycling hardware … finding greener sources of energy and reducing water use.
I'm hopeful that this trend towards more renewable power will continue and accelerate. I'm hopeful that the industry will use its influence to. Help the rest of the economy become more efficient because those are the two big levers, as far as I can see, accelerating the renewable transition and using the power of information technology, our ace in the hole to transform the global society to become ultimately zero emissions. When we talk about sustainability, though, it goes beyond climate change, says Ali Fenn. It’s about building a more sustainable society.
Ultimately, it's about equity. Right? And ultimately it's about global prosperity. It's not just about sustainability, it's about inclusive economy. Right. And that is, you know, we've got 45, 50 percent of the world's population that is still not online. Right. So despite the fact that the Internet, quote unquote, is technically open and open access, we can debate speeds and feeds and prices and all that kind of stuff. But technically open, we still have an enormous amount of the population which is not online. And and, you know, that was a huge tax on our global society prior to the pandemic. The pandemic has has has brought it into the fore even more because it's so deeply affects access to education, to health, to careers, to to everything. Right. Social life. And so we've you know, we we have and we've always had this unsustainability goals have a universal access goal and we're way short of it. Ultimately, it's about getting people online, which has it, which which raises everybody right and raises benefit for everybody. And if we can do that in a hugely sustainable way, then, you know, we all benefit.
I would like to see a world that has has harnessing the power, the positive potential of the technology industry to really drive inclusion and access I think there's a huge opportunity to harness the powerful potential. There is no industry that's more capable of innovation.
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