Data centers are behemoths of energy consumption, or at least in terms of raw kilowatt-hour consumption. In 2014, data centers were responsible for roughly 2% of all energy used by the United States. Still, despite massive industry growth, the ratio has not changed much.
There are several factors responsible for maintaining a relatively efficient system of sustained industry growth without exorbitant energy consumption acceleration.
First, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy says that data centers are upgrading their IT equipment every three to five years.
As part of these upgrades, data centers are able to remove multiple older machines, replacing them with one new (virtual) server.
Another factor that has been a huge help in improving the efficiency of data centers is the hyperscaling executed by high-level data companies. Amazon, IBM, Google, and their ilk are able to create the most energy-efficient server rooms and centers that are technically possible today.
Both Google and Apple are using 100% renewable energy in their hyperscale centers as well. This should be enough for past criticisms of data center waste to wither in the past, but there are still some concerns to be addressed.
Perhaps some big data centers are running at a high level of efficiency. Perhaps renewable energy will continue to be integrated into these massive data centers. But while the energy that powers data centers could eventually be fully sustainable and efficient, the resources that make the data centers are finite.
Even if hardware solutions continue to grow in capacity and shrink in size, the materials needed to build such hardware will succumb to depletion on Earth if no alternative is found. Even when fuel becomes fully renewable, rare Earth metals found in electronics never will be.
There are 60 billion emails sent every day. Of those, 97% are spam. This raises the question of digital environmentalism. Should we be so flippantly spending storage space?
Next time you create and share anything online, just remember that it all has to be stored in a server room somewhere, occupying physical, non-renewable materials.
Still, it is much more likely that we will develop new technologies in the future that allow us further optimize our online storage solutions just as we have continued to optimize data center efficiencies and energy consumption levels.