Storing data in the cloud was considered an environmental saver ten years ago. But the extreme increase in data flows is increasing the carbon footprint of the cloud, making the search for more energy-efficient ways of processing data more urgent than ever.
Last year, most of the world’s leaders came together at COP26 to make new environmental pledges. The aim is to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C and there is increasing pressure on companies to get involved and do their part.
When we entered the internet age 25 years ago, most people only saw the environmental benefits of how the internet and email saved tons of physical resources like paper. Ten years later, cloud storage seemed to be the new ecological savior in the IT world. It reduced energy consumption for businesses compared to on-premises servers, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and contributed to dematerialization. But we soon found that the carbon emissions from manufacturing, powering, and cooling computers, smartphones, and the massive data centers that store cloud data offset these benefits.
Nowadays, information and communication technologies (ICT) contribute significantly to CO2 emissions. ICT, which mainly consists of data centers and cloud computing, accounts for about 3.5% of global electricity consumption.
The cloud – profitable and wasteful at the same time
When companies examine the environmental impact of their IT operations and look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, they often still move their data to the cloud, thereby reducing emissions from their digital applications and infrastructure. But how much environmental impact does this have when you’re really just shifting that carbon footprint down the supply chain, rather than removing it entirely?
Let’s take a simple example. Suppose you are saving a standard business document. If you store it on your hard drive, it will take about 0.000005 kWh per gigabyte to store your data. On the other hand, if you store it in the cloud, a Carnegie Mellon University study concluded that the energy cost of data transmission and storage is about 7 kWh per gigabyte. That’s because cloud data isn’t stored in real clouds, but in buildings — massive structures filled with thousands of disk drives that consume enormous amounts of energy. There are millions of data centers worldwide, some occupying nearly 200 hectares of land.
It takes power to get the data to the data center — miles of fiber optic cables peppered with other internet infrastructure devices, all of which require power along the way. In the center, your data is stored multiple times on hard drives. The constant activity of all these hard drives generates a lot of heat and requires energy-intensive air conditioning to keep the devices from overheating.
Saving a document to the cloud is convenient as it takes it out of your hands. You don’t have to worry about losing it and you can access it anywhere. It also gives you the peace of mind of a secure backup, but at what cost?
All the big players in the industry have invested heavily in new clouds. For example, Microsoft is now changing the options for its private office customers to save data on the hard drive. With the standard version of Windows 11 you are tied to Microsoft 365, which automatically stores all your data in the cloud. In the cheaper versions of Microsoft 365, you don’t even get the option to keep it on disk.
Even if Microsoft has ambitious goals to be CO2-neutral by 2030. Right now they are escalating emissions in large numbers by moving a massive batch of consumer customers who have no real need for cloud storage to their Azure cloud. And the reason for this is not difficult to find out. Cloud storage might be accessible for these new transferring users for maybe six months, maybe a year, but of course it’s a huge cash cow in the long run since it’s a subscription service that currently costs $59.99 is $/year for one person and one terabyte.
And it’s easy for Microsoft to retain customers once they’re on board. If you already have all your data stored in the cloud, you still need to be connected to Microsoft if you want to keep it. Microsoft’s information for private customers states that you as a customer are obliged to connect to the Azure cloud at least once a month. Otherwise, they risk slower connection speeds and software failures.
But are there sustainable alternatives to massive cloud storage? Of course there is.
An alternative sustainable solution for Massive IoT
One company that has recently developed a sustainable alternative to cloud dependency is IoE Corp, the fast-moving R&D start-up I now work for myself. However, IoE Corp’s goal is not private customers who need to store arbitrary documents. They offer a solution for the new world of Smart Cities, for integrated AI services that produce massive amounts of data, a world of autonomous automation and massive IoT and IIoT systems.
Because the meaning of smart cities relates more to dumb apps than infrastructure solutions, IoE Corp doesn’t use that word. Instead, IoE Corp speaks of developing an informed infrastructure and their technical solution has broad scalability. It can be used for a traffic light system in an area, a smart home or an entire integrated city with different AI solutions.
What IoE Corp does is they stay off the WWW. They work at the core of the internet, building a secure blockchain for systems of nodes that all control each other, a decentralized system where the data is distributed, eliminating the need for large server halls where machines need to be cooled. The idea is to create sustainable, secure systems beyond the cloud without cloud storage.
– Some services today require cloud connection, but when it comes to IoT then avoid cloud as much as possible for security, stability and privacy reasons. Web service providers developed the cloud to optimize the web. Mattias Bergstöm, serial entrepreneur, futurist and CTO of IoE Corp, explains that massive IoT and the internet don’t mix well.
The technology he developed is based on a human-first architecture and runs on a truly decentralized infrastructure. It’s called Eden, and the Eden system is a decentralized, autonomous, portable, secure virtual infrastructure for managing clustered workloads via depos (decentralized pods) and services that facilitate declarative configuration and automation.
The decentralized model is based on scalable device clustering, where adding new devices as nodes is easy. This allows each device to provide computing resources over an intelligent mesh network, allowing computing power to be where it’s needed and close to where it’s being used. Eden is being developed over quantum secure tunnels, using polymorphic encryption keys and a consensus blockchain to verify the data moving between nodes across the tunnels, creating trusted data-walled gardens.
Data processing and storage is orchestrated via service manifests that describe service rules, policies, and logic. An autonomous, knowledge-based AI manages the underlying orchestration mechanics, using network consensus over the blockchain as a decision-making mechanism. Finally, the cluster topography is dynamically updated by the orchestration to match the current workload. Eden system service repositories are generated and deployed similarly to container images; The vaults are MPI (Message Passing Interface) cluster enabled from the start.
Implementing these innovations in the deployment of IoT devices helps keep the energy and cost levels of computing at sustainable levels. Adding a viable option to the data centers that need to be constantly re-adapted to maintain a reliable and secure operating system that meets the needs of sustainable computing.
We must stop using wasteful programming languages
Another aspect of sustainable computing that most companies neglect is that the language the code is written in makes a huge difference in how much energy is used to run a service or program. We must be aware of the wasteful nature of some programming languages and try to implement greener options if we really want a world of sustainable computing to become a reality.
There is a big difference in what kind of programming language you choose. Compiled languages like C, C++, Rust, and Ada are among the most energy efficient, while interpreted languages like Perl, Python, and Ruby are among the least energy efficient. Sorted according to their programming paradigm, the imperative languages require the least memory on average, followed by the object-oriented, the functional and finally the scripting languages.
One of the most wasteful interpreted languages is Python. It’s very popular. Global apps like Youtube and Netflix are largely programmed in Python. It is also widely used in teaching programming due to its educational qualities and ease of use.
But of course all this must end soon if our goal is to implement sustainable computing. Therefore, it was easy for IoE Corp, a company that works with edge commuting and sustainability at its core, to choose a compiled language to program in instead of using C or C++ Rust.
– The idea of sustainability by design is fantastic, but we should remember that most wasteful behavior comes from implementation, from interpreting programming languages that are wasteful, and they use the cloud; that the bottom line depends on wasteful code, Mattias concludes.
There is an enormous and urgent need to live sustainably. We must all do our best – governments, businesses and ordinary people – to limit global temperature rise as much as possible. And when it comes to sustainable computing, IoE Corp’s path is to be truly sustainable: by using edge computing, a compiled programming language, and beyond the cloud.
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