You should care that your email is burning diesel fuel

How much does the cloud really cost us, and our environment? And what could you possibly do about that?


Server examination. Photo by IntelFreePress via Flickr

Photo by IntelFreePress on Flickr.

The Avengers hit the home video market Tuesday. It was the most pre-ordered movie in Amazon’s history, and if you ordered directly and digitally from Amazon, it was mere milliseconds between transaction and being able to watch the Hulk sucker-punch Thor. Amazon has The Avengers on row after row of servers, in building after building in Northern Virginia, ready to stream to you as fast as you can receive its Marvel-y excitement. The price? $14.99, but the New York Times would like you to consider the batteries, diesel, disk space, and national power grid modifications necessary for that instant video.

The Times made the case for considering, or even shaming, the physical impact of “the cloud” in its front-center story this past Sunday. It’s roughly 4,400 words, based on what writer James Glanz describes as a year-long study of data centers and a commissioned survey of server utilization. And the article does pretend it doesn’t have a message, and that message is: all the things we’ve come to expect from the web and from apps are hugely wasteful, to the tune of “6 percent to 12 percent” utilization, much the same as in 2008. And we’re all demanding more and more from these presumably inefficient servers.

The reaction? As swift and efficient as Iron Man’s HD aerial maneuvers. Diego Doval, computer scientist and former CTO for Ning, describes the article as “a mix of half-guesses, contradictions, and flat-out incorrect information.” Katie Fehrenbacher, who wrote a four-part series on data centers for GigaOm, writes that it seems as if Glanz “jumped into a time machine and did his reporting a couple years ago.” Wired wants to remind us that the data center teams at Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are very secretive and keeping their advancements to themselves—”The stuff that companies will talk about is often so out-of-date that it’s obsolete.” Almost every critic who took the time pointed to Glanz’s poorly chosen, six-year-old anecdote about engineers buying fans at Walgreens to keep Facebook from melting, and they were right to do so.

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