When it comes to using data every day, most don’t give a thought to where their streamed videos, music, or other uses come from. Data centers or server rooms are where all remote storage, processing, or large amounts of data distribution comes from. Corporations and businesses tend to either have their own physical room for this or are utilizing one. Using the internet, streaming games/movies, music, and other uses all stem from data centers.
What you may not think of is the impact having such intensive centers can have an impact on the environment and whether it is damaging to use on such a daily basis across the globe by billions.
What is a data center and how do they work?
At their most basic – they are a facility that houses an organization’s data, equipment, and IT operations. Data centers contain physical (or more recently over the years) virtual servers that are connected internally and externally through networking and communication equipment to transfer, store, and access digital information. Every server has its own processor, memory, and storage space – essentially like your personal computer at home but with far more power and size.
Data centers are designed to run and handle high volumes of data and traffic with minimal latency.
- Processing large data such as powering machine learning and AI.
- Processing high-volume eCommerce transactions.
- Online gaming platforms and communities such as Twitch.
- Videos and music streaming; Spotify and Youtube as examples.
- Private data storage, recovery, backups, and management all fall to the data centers.
The largest data center providers as of currently in 2023:
- Amazon Web Services – Global
- Microsoft Azure – Global
- Google Cloud Platform – Global
- Meta Platforms (Facebook) – North America and Europe
- Equinix – Global
- Digital Realty – Global
- NTT Global Data Centers – Global
- CyrusOne – North America and Europe
- GDS Holdings – Global
- KDDI/Telehouse – Global
The country with the largest number of data centers is the United States, with around 2,701 of them. Dallas itself has 153 data centers, while California has over 200. There are data centers spread throughout the United States across all 50 States. The largest data center in the world however is the China Telecom-Inner Mongolia Information Park, that is founded by a Chinese-state-owned communications company.
Japan has the AT TOKYO Chuo data center, which is without a doubt Japan’s largest data center with a total area of 140,000 square meters. Europe has quite a few data centers, but their largest is in Portugal which is just shy of 75,000 square meters in size. Interestingly, the Altice Portugal data center is notable not only for being the largest, but it has a rainwater collection system and a garden with over 600 trees. Solar energy is also produced entirely on-site. It was strategically placed in the city of Covilhã, which is the coolest place in Portugal. Temperature is one of the most important risks to take into consideration for data centers and they have taken all the precautions while utilizing it to harness cleaner, green energy as well. More data centers could benefit from utilizing solar panels and other green energy use.
Meta (previously Facebook) has its own giant of a data center, at a large 170,000 square feet space, 11-stories high that is in Singapore. Meta has several large data centers all around the world and the largest in the United States spans over nine buildings and nearly 345,000 square meters. By the end of 2023, they plan to open two more halls that are 41,000 square meters that will have two floors.
Why do data centers need to be so large, and is it necessary?
Data centers are predicted to make up at least 10% or more of global energy consumption by 2030. The size provides the opportunity to expand businesses and use additional data center space. Economically speaking, large-scale businesses and investors will implement technological innovations, and all work together to continue attracting connection providers. Undoubtedly we will be hearing about large data centers in the future, as they more than likely will not be going anywhere – any time soon.
Tech giants and other larger businesses have to pay the power bills just as we all do, just on a much grander scale, such as buying VPPA (Virtual Power Purchase Agreements.) It will be important for data centers in the future to be more reliant on clean energy, as there is a finite amount of electricity otherwise, and it does affect the environment and economy. Data centers may stay the same size or continue growing, but as long as they are done alongside green energy – it could help the economy as well as help shrink their large carbon footprints.
How environmentally damaging is music and video streaming?
With binge-watching TV shows, and music, installing smartphone apps, and sharing photos online across social media apps, the power usage and terabytes of data add up and are something we don’t take into consideration when it has become our day to day.
The power demand when more appliances than ever rely on internet connections – even fridges and washer/dryer machines come Wi-Fi enabled now. All of those do add up to the electricity demands. It isn’t the individual usage that drives up the cost, but it is data centers needing a massive amount of cooling to be able to continue upkeeping the data transfers. With some centers being larger than football fields, it can be easy to see how the power demand could drive up environmental damage. Anders Andrae, a researcher in technology in Sweden, expects the global data centers to take up around 650 terawatt hours of electricity over the next few years. To put that on a scale, that is nearly as much electricity as Canada’s entire energy sector.
Videos being streamed is the largest use of energy spent, with Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime being the top three taking up to 60% of all internet traffic. Finding green solutions to offset the energy spent is in discussions with multiple tech giants vowing to clean up their data centers and implement greener solutions.
Streaming is becoming the new normal for day-to-day listening with audio, it can be difficult to fully gauge the carbon footprint. Vinyl, cassette tapes, and CDs for example all had a more obvious impact, with non-recyclable plastics and the energy spent creating them. Streaming has a more invisible effect, but an effect nonetheless. Our music and videos are effortlessly brought to us in our homes, on the way to work, or at parties. The electronic files are stored on the active, cooled data centers and those are what transfer your music to you.
Streaming media has been said to account for around 3% of the global carbon footprint, and with how large scale and power-hungry data centers can be all around the world – it isn’t a far-fetched thought to consider.
Streaming vs physical media: Comparing the environmental impact
As previously stated, the difference between physical media and streaming services being an easy-to-access medium can be compared in their environmental impacts. Physical media of course has a more obvious impact at first glance with non-recyclable plastic, toxic plastics, and the energy needed to create these into something we can hold and use for years without degrading.
Streaming, however, has a more invisible impact on the environment, especially when we don’t see the immediate effect or think about it as much. The data centers that store all our data and music are massive facilities that take a lot of energy to cool and maintain. To state they don’t make an environmental impact is not correct, and as technology continues to grow, it will more than likely become more apparent.
Tech companies can work alongside green and clean energy while they grow their data centers, to power each other and keep them running as cleanly as possible without only taking away from the environment or creating lasting impressions negatively, such as using solar panels and water or wind cooling could be incredibly beneficial and sustainable in the long run.
With the internet infrastructure always changing, so do the numbers. Today’s figures are out of date tomorrow. It’s all relative, but it does add up to the CO2 emissions being put out there. It may be modest, or it may be a significant amount – that all said, it does still affect the environment. There are multiple types of emissions and data centers, plus their physical counterparts can account for more than we think.
Environmental impact as data centers and technology grow
Entertainment content, whether it’s music, games, or video – all media is online and is poised to grow as time marches on. Data centers are at the epicentre of how we consume media. Regardless of what kind of digital media and how it’s accessed, entertainment requirements and the power consumption necessary to keep it smooth and available at high speeds will continue to climb with it.
Data centers will evolve along with it and continue to expand capacity, build and strengthen networks, and develop ecosystems to maintain the high-performing online experience that makes the world connected. Data centers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and it will be up to the technology giants to work alongside clean energy to ensure that it will be long-lasting and leave less of a carbon footprint.
With more countries putting their foot down towards better green energy and using renewable resources, it is within reason that data centers and tech giants will be required to do so over the coming years as well. Canada itself has pledged to have 90% of its electricity come from clean renewable sources by 2030.
As a final note about current data centers and their carbon footprint on the environment – they have a long way to go to reduce their emissions and energy use, but with greener energy and working to have a more sustainable model in the future to come (because streaming and data use will only continue to grow as time marches on), it can be said that as consumers we can also do our part to stream less or look more into where our power comes from and what we take away from the information presented, especially when it is a fast-paced and ever-changing environment.