The Hidden Costs of “Instant”

What just about everyone loves about the Internet is its speed and convenience, and what’s not to like about instant messaging, near-instant email, Tweets and Twitter, and instant on-line shopping?  Yet there is a high and hidden cost… one far greater than most people realize or consider – and a number of these costs were detailed in a front-page story in The New York Times on September 23rd, which outlined the results of a year-long study.

For example, on a world-wide basis, internet data centers, now numbering more than three million world-wide, “use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.”   The United States alone accounts for about thirty percent of that.  One of the most staggering figures revealed by the study was that actual computer/server computations and data processing only took six to twelve percent of that electrical load.  The rest was merely to keep all systems “on alert” to handle intermittent peak loads and information surges.

It’s not that the technology to make data centers more efficient doesn’t exist.  It does.  The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center has refined its systems to achieve more than 90% efficiency, and a company called Power Assure markets a technology that enables commercial data centers to safely power down servers in off-peak periods.  Yet Silicon Valley Power – the utility that serves Santa Clara and Silicon Valley – has not been able to entice a single data center to adopt such energy saving programs.

Not only is the internet energy wasteful, but these data centers are significant sources of air pollution. In just the states of Virginia and Illinois more than a dozen data centers have been cited for violations of air quality standings.  In northern Virginia alone, Amazon – one of the larger operators of data centers – was cited with 24 violations over three years, including running diesel generators without a permit, and was fined over a quarter of a million dollars.

So why is there so much waste and unnecessary pollution caused by internet data centers?

One reason is that companies that live by the “instant” fear that failure to always have instant access will have an adverse impact on sales.  A corollary of that is that data center managers aren’t rewarded for saving on the electrical bill or reducing air pollution.  They’re rewarded for having data centers on-line and able to handle anything 99.999% of the time.  That’s another reason why Northern Virginia’s data centers together have back-up diesel generators with a combined output almost equal to a standard nuclear power plant… with air emissions far greater than most conventional power plants.

Another aspect of the problem, and one not touched by the Times’ investigation, is that this increasing electrical usage created by the internet puts additional strain on the national and regional power grids, an infrastructure that is already overstrained in many areas… and this is getting worse. For example, data centers in Northern Virginia now draw over 500 million watts of electricity and plans on the drawing boards suggest that load will double in five years.

Instant access… it’s wonderful… but can we really keep this up?


5 thoughts on “The Hidden Costs of “Instant””

  1. Interesting. We had a power outage on Sunday morning – 7:30 to about 9:00 here in my neighborhood. I wonder if this was a contributor?

  2. Tim says:

    LEM is spot on in that managers of Data Centers or rather the organisations responsible for them are not rewarded on saving power. They are measured solely on reliability and availability of the services their computers support.

    Catering for this and a peak load is always a thorny issue as the costs go up exponentially as you want extra percentage points, eg from 99% to 99.9% represents a vast cost increase, yet it can keep you ahead of your competitors, and so is justifiable in a business case. Who would take a risk to move a power reduction strategy which is not risk-free (and those quoted are not). Altruism and social conscience does not figure at in to the bottom line.

    A fine of $250k to Amazon is a small cost if your business reputation remains intact as you aim to become the no.1 provider of practically everything.

    To power outages, some friends in California experience these regularly. When you look at the defence budget for the US, which after all has no official empire to maintain, it makes you wonder about priorities. Neither of the candidates has mentioned this aspect however.

  3. Steve says:

    The hidden costs are much higher. You outlined the hidden costs from an economist’s perspective, but from a physician’s perspective the costs would also include damage to the mind and body. Studies are just beginning to link the constant, pervasive stimuli of our ‘instant’ society with increases in depression, anxiety, and attention/hyperactivity disorders. You mentioned pollution which worsens pulmonary disorders including asthma, the incidence of which is increasing rapidly. Of course this translates into real healthcare cost which our nation cannot afford.

  4. Joe says:

    People would relate differently to Google if it were only available some of the time. Rather than looking things up whenever they needed to, they would treat it more like an encyclopedia – and only use it when necessary. This would impact Google’s profits, which is why they try to be available 100% of the time.

    Amazon doesn’t just sell stuff, they also provide infrastructure for many larger services on the web. The whole “software as a service” running in your browser only convinces people if it’s always available the way software on their own computers is.

    Facebook and twitter wouldn’t get to track people as effectively if some portion of the time they were unable to receive people’s pointless updates: people would give up using their services. Why is mobile “booming” — because it’s always available and just works.

    So, in order to convince people to relinquish more control to faceless third parties, it is necessary to keep the datacenters humming. The environmental costs are collateral damage.

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