A recent MIT case study sheds light on the physical demands and environmental impact of cloud computing. What does that mean for Opis Cloud?
“In the age of machine learning, cryptocurrency mining, and seemingly infinite data storage capacity enabled by cloud computing, the environmental costs of ubiquitous computing in modern life are obscured by the sheer complexity of infrastructures and supply chains involved in even the simplest of digital transactions. How does computation contribute to the warming of the planet?”
Steven Gonzalez Monserrate
The case study was written by Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the most prestigious technology colleges in the world. The Cloud Anthropologist and PhD candidate “drew on five years of research and ethnographic fieldwork in server farms to illustrate some of the diverse environmental impacts of data storage.”
The report had major significance to the research and work of the Opis Cloud team. Their application is a decentralised solution to the environmental issues of cloud computing.
Here is a breakdown of the case study.
The Cloud is Material
The case study highlights a probable misleading factor about it being labelled ‘cloud’ computing. The connotations attached are suggestive that cloud computing is immaterial and as such one might not reconcile it with much environmental impact. However, if you look deeper into clouds themselves, you will see they “are in fact made of matter – water molecules in various states of condensation and crystallisation.” Similarly, when you look deeper into cloud computing, it is no different.
‘To get at the matter of the cloud we must unravel the coils of coaxial cables, fiber optic tubes, cellular towers, air conditioners, power distribution units, transformers, water pipes, computer servers, and more.
We must attend to its material flows of electricity, water, air, heat, metals, minerals, and rare earth elements that undergird our digital lives.’
Cloud Computing is not Cool
Steven recants a story from his work in the field at a data centre, otherwise known as a server farm. An incident occurred. The servers were overheating and the technician was panicking.
‘The flood of warmth seeps into the servers faster than the heat sinks printed into their circuit boards can abate, faster than the fans can expel the hot air recycling in a runaway feedback loop of warming.’
As any minute of downtime can cost companies thousands of dollars, Steven reminds us, something had to be done. ‘Within two minutes, however, the three massive air conditioning units that had been idling in a standby state activate in full power, flooding the room with an arctic chill and restoring order to the chaotic scene.’ Steven states that ‘in most data centers today, cooling accounts for greater than 40 percent of electricity usage.’
What’s worse is that it wasn’t just a one-off data center. In fact, Steven adds that “data centers overwhelmingly rely on air conditioning. Most data centers in ‘North America draw power from “dirty” electricity grids, especially in Virginia’s “data center alley,” the site of seventy percent of the world’s internet traffic in 2019.’
As a consequence of such high demands of cooling, ‘the Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry.’ To put it into perspective, he adds ‘a single data center can consume the equivalent electricity of fifty thousand homes.’
In addition to the hyperventilating nature of servers, they are also quite thirsty. Though the use of cooling water ‘is an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint” it comes at a cost too. ‘In Bluffdale, Utah, residents are suffering from water shortages and power outages, as a result of the nearby Utah Data Center, a facility of the US National Security Agency (NSA) that guzzles seven million gallons of water daily to operate.’
It seems whatever they try to do to cool these demanding servers, they run into new problems.
Such a Waste
In addition to the cooling problems, cloud computing also has issues of waste disposal to contend with. Even though ‘efforts are underway in Europe and elsewhere to augment facility and equipment designs to extend the lifespan of units’, some ‘environmental organizations like Greenpeace estimate that less than 16% of the tons of e-waste generated annually is recycled.”
Steven explains that in addition to servers, these waste products are ‘cables, batteries uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), air conditioners (CRACs and CRAHs), power distribution units (PDUs), and transformers.’ All of which are ‘periodically decommissioned and disposed of.’
What Does This Mean For Opis Cloud?
The Opis Cloud application is a decentralised cloud computing app that connects people’s current mobile devices. It uses a small percentage of those devices’ CPUs (which the user can control in the settings) to form a theoretical supercomputer. Individually, anyone using Opis Cloud can help scientific research as the phone completes tasks whilst it’s charging and idle. However, collectively, the compute can be given to companies to offset their carbon footprint by using decentralised power instead of data centres.
The application uses cryptocurrency to reward its users for using the application. Although Steven highlights some issues with cryptocurrency mining in his case study, these are not relevant to the Opis Cloud application. The Opis Cloud application uses a proof of work system that is a vastly improved version environmentally speaking compared to the method of Bitcoin.
Click here to learn more.
The Cool Kid on the Blockchain
The demands of one person’s device in the Opis Cloud app pales compared to the needs of a data centre. Firstly, the application only uses a small percentage of the device’s CPU. Mobile devices in modern times are more powerful than the computers that landed us on the moon. Secondly, the application has a built-in ability to monitor the device’s temperature to stop any significant wear and tear on the device. As a consequence of both factors, the application doesn’t affect the life expectancy of a mobile device or require any external cooling maintenance.
Click here to read the full case study.
To learn more about Opis Cloud, click here.