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10 eye-opening facts about data centers that will change your perspective

July 25, 2023

10 eye-opening facts about data centers that will change your perspective

Data centers, those silent workhorses of the digital age, are as mysterious as they are indispensable. But the truth is that they have more secrets than a top-rated spy novel. Shrouded in secrecy and security, they operate behind closed doors, crunch our data, keep our digital lives ticking, and, for the most part, remain out of sight and out of mind.

But do we really understand what they are and what they do?

Here are 10 eye-opening facts about data centers that you probably didn't know.

1. Data centers are too thirsty for power

Data centers are notorious power guzzlers. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy, data centers accounted for about 1% of the world's energy use in 2020, with predictions suggesting a dramatic rise in the years to come. This thirst for energy isn't just about the incredible amount of processing these centers carry out on a daily basis. Cooling systems, designed to prevent these massive warehouses of servers from overheating, also suck up a significant chunk of this power. To put things into perspective, a large data center operates on a scale similar to the power usage of a small town. Just like a classic American SUV, they're big, powerful, and notorious for their fuel consumption.

To combat the power consumption problem, engineers have been working on energy-efficient technology, such as using renewable energy sources or advanced cooling systems. Nevertheless, the very nature of data centers, which demand constant uptime and lightning-fast processing speeds, means they will continue to be major players on the world's energy stage.

2. E-Waste is the unwanted offspring of data centers

'Out with the old and in with the new.' This mantra is at the heart of the tech world, and data centers are no exception. As technology evolves, older servers and equipment become outdated and need to be replaced, which leads to a significant amount of electronic waste, or e-waste.

Sadly, much of this e-waste ends up in landfills, where it contributes to environmental pollution. When electronic waste is improperly disposed of in landfills, toxic materials can seep into the soil and groundwater, affecting not only our health but also that of land and sea animals. E-waste accounts for nearly 70% of the toxic heavy metals in landfills, and these chemicals, such as mercury, cadmium, beryllium, and lead, can contaminate the soil, waterways, and air, leading to polluted environments and negatively impacting human and marine life.

With that in mind, some companies, including Hive, are making efforts to recycle and repurpose older equipment. That is the whole philosophy behind Hive's distributed system: to use the storage sitting idle in our devices instead of big data centers.

Still, the rapidly advancing pace of technology, combined with the increasing demand for data processing, means that e-waste will continue to be a significant issue for the foreseeable future.

3. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to spare

Data centers don't just consume vast amounts of electricity - they're also incredibly thirsty. Cooling systems, essential to keeping servers at the right temperature and preventing overheating, use enormous volumes of water. In 2014, US data centers used 626 billion liters of water, enough to fill 250,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Sounds scary, right? Especially with global warming on the rise and water scarcity becoming a growing concern worldwide.

And if you want it to go from scary to fracking insane: humans have pumped so much groundwater in the last 50 years, we’ve altered the Earth’s spin.

This significant water consumption presents a significant environmental challenge, especially in regions where water scarcity is a serious concern. As a result, tech companies and data center operators are exploring various innovative solutions to reduce water usage, including the use of air-cooling systems and even locating data centers in colder climates to take advantage of natural cooling.

But is that really enough?

4. The sound of silence: noise emissions from data centers

Noise pollution may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of data centers, but it's a very real concern. Thousands of servers humming away together can generate a considerable amount of noise. For this reason, data centers are often located in remote areas, far from residential neighborhoods.

While concrete data on the impact of this digital cacophony is a bit scarce, some studies suggest that it's not exactly music to the ears for those living in the vicinity. Health issues, stress, and sleep disturbances are among the reported party crashers at this noisy shindig.

Data centers are like the heavy metal concerts of the digital world, with average noise levels cranking up to a deafening 92 dB(A) around server areas, and a hair-raising 96 dB(A) within server racks. And that, folks, is like trying to hold a business meeting at a rock festival. Just for reference, a heavy metal concert can be very loud, with sound levels ranging from 80 dB to 120 dB.

In short, data centers may be playing a tune that's a bit too loud for comfort, influencing not just work but potentially impacting the well-being of those living near these digital 'maestros'.

However, being out in the sticks is not a silver bullet solution. Noise emissions from data centers can still impact local wildlife, disrupting animal behavior and even leading to the avoidance of certain areas. To address this issue, some data centers are investing in noise reduction technologies and planning strategies to mitigate their impact on surrounding environments.

5. Job creation: quality over quantity

When it comes to job creation, data centers often paint a rosy picture, promising a significant boost to local economies. However, a closer examination reveals a more complex and less favorable reality. The promise of job creation must be weighed against the challenges and potential drawbacks these facilities can bring to local communities.

Data centers, by their nature, are highly automated and require a specialized workforce, which means they create fewer jobs than traditional industries. The jobs they do create often require such a high level of technical expertise that they are filled by specialists brought in from other locations rather than by local residents. This can lead to a form of economic displacement where the benefits of job creation are not evenly distributed among the local community.

6. Data centers vs. local communities: a love-hate relationship

Data centers have a complex relationship with local communities. They do contribute to the local economy and create jobs, there is no doubt about that. But they also can strain local resources like water and power and increase noise pollution.

Data centers often require large plots of land and significant infrastructure, which can lead to changes in land use and even impact local property prices. In countries like the Netherlands, local opposition to data centers is growing, with communities becoming increasingly vocal about the environmental and societal costs. The lifespan of a data center, typically 15-20 years, also raises concerns about the long-term impact on communities, as they often leave behind large, unused structures. 

Some communities welcome the investment and job opportunities that a new data center can bring, while others worry about the environmental impact and resource consumption.

7. Transparency: the invisible cloak of data centers

Cloud companies, under the guise of security, maintain a high degree of confidentiality about their data centers, ostensibly to minimize the risk of unauthorized access and tampering. However, this secrecy extends to the point where even their locations are sometimes kept hidden, with physical security measures such as crash-proof barriers, limited entry points, and regular security patrols further fortifying these clandestine fortresses.

Inside these facilities, a labyrinth of access controls is in place to prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing customer data or installing malicious hardware. While these measures are touted as necessary to protect against security threats such as denial of service attacks, theft of confidential information, data alteration, and data loss, they also serve to create an opaque environment where accountability can be elusive.

Securing a data center involves a multi-layered approach, encompassing physical security, access controls, personnel training, and the implementation of advanced security models such as the Zero Trust model. However, the effectiveness and integrity of these measures are largely taken at face value, given the lack of transparency.

While data centers may argue that this level of secrecy is necessary for security, it raises significant concerns about accountability and trust. The fact that our personal and sensitive data is stored in these hidden, heavily fortified facilities, the operations of which are largely kept out of public view, is far from an optimal solution. It underscores the urgent need for more transparent, accountable, and user-centric approaches to data storage and management in the digital age.

8. Data centers are a golden goose for investors

Data centers, despite their high return on investment, have a surprisingly short lifespan of 15 to 20 years. This fleeting existence raises questions about their long-term sustainability and environmental impact. Furthermore, the scale of tax cuts offered to tech companies for establishing data centers often overshadows their contributions to local communities.

It's true that the global data center market, valued at approximately $190 billion a few years ago in 2020, is projected to exceed $500 billion by 2030 (beware of projections and their false promises), but it's also true that they are major contributors to global carbon emissions and consume vast amounts of electricity and water. Their rapid obsolescence also contributes to electronic waste, as we saw earlier. While data centers may offer quick financial returns, their environmental impact and resource consumption present significant concerns. 

What is the true cost and value of data centers?

9. Most of the data in data centers is trash

Well... Most of the data stored in data centers is not necessarily 'trash' (or is it?) but rather unused or underutilized data, often referred to as 'dark data'. Dark data refers to data that is collected and stored but not actively analyzed or used for business purposes. According to Veritas Technologies, dark data is projected to waste up to 6.4 million tons of carbon dioxide annually

This highlights the environmental impact of storing and managing data that is not actively contributing to business insights or value. However, it's important to note that data centers also store and process valuable and necessary data for various industries and applications. Data centers play a critical role in supporting digital transformation, enabling online activities, and providing infrastructure for all sectors of the economy. 

But this begs the question: Are they really that important for consumer needs?

10. Data centers are part of the 'infinite growth' problem

Since we are nearing the end of the article, we thought the last point needed a more... vivid explanation. We all know that we are living on a planet of finite resources. What we have is what we have, and the faster we use it, the sooner we'll have on our hands a depleted planet in need of saving. 

What does that have to do with data centers?

Think about data centers like a really hungry friend who's always asking for more pizza (we all have such a friend) in exchange for streaming our favorite shows on his super-fast computer. As we all keep streaming, sharing, and storing more stuff online, it's like we're asking data centers to chow down more and more pizza all the time. That means we need more and more of these "pizza-loving friends" (the data centers) around the world. And here's the catch: they don't just need space to sit down (which often means less room for Mother Nature), but they also need a ton of electricity to keep running and stay cool, like a non-stop air-conditioned pizza party. Then there's the issue of all those pizza boxes (the data center equipment), which have to be made, used, and then thrown away (the e-waste problem once again). 

This ever-growing, pizza-loving digital party is causing a serious "infinite growth" problem that needs to be looked at if we're going to keep the planet clean and healthy.

Hive and hiveDisk: a game changer

In response to these challenges, new solutions like hiveDisk are emerging to fill the gap for sustainable solutions that respect the Earth and local communities. Our solution leverages the power of distributed computing to alleviate some of the environmental and social impacts of traditional data centers. By using the spare capacity on everyday devices like smartphones and laptops, we can reduce the need for centralized data centers. And by distributing data across multiple devices, we can also enhance security and resilience.

Learn more about hiveDisk and hiveNet and how we are building the cloud of the future.

There is always another way. The right way.

Data centers are a vital part of our digital lives, but they come with their share of challenges. As our dependence on digital services grows, so does the importance of finding sustainable, efficient, and socially responsible ways to store and process data. By understanding more about data centers, we can make informed choices about the digital services we use and the companies we support. And maybe we can make the right choice and move away from centralized solutions to a distributed cloud that respects the environment and focuses on communities.

Change your perspective.

Switch to Hive.

How do data centers impact local ecosystems beyond just water consumption? What other environmental factors might be affected?

Data centers impact local ecosystems in various ways beyond water consumption. While water usage is a significant concern, they also contribute to noise pollution, potentially disrupting wildlife and affecting their behavior. Additionally, the infrastructure and operation of data centers can lead to changes in land use, impacting local ecosystems and biodiversity. Moreover, the disposal of electronic waste from outdated equipment can further contribute to environmental pollution, affecting soil, water, and air quality in surrounding areas.

What specific measures are being taken by companies like Hive to address the environmental and social challenges posed by traditional data centers, how exactly does this work and what are the potential benefits?

Companies like Hive are addressing the environmental and social challenges posed by traditional data centers through innovative solutions such as distributed computing and leveraging spare capacity on everyday devices. Distributed computing involves spreading data processing tasks across multiple devices rather than centralizing them in large data centers. By utilizing idle resources on devices like smartphones and laptops, Hive aims to reduce reliance on centralized data centers, thereby minimizing their environmental impact and enhancing security and resilience. 

How do data centers contribute to global carbon emissions, and what are the potential solutions to mitigate their environmental impact? 

Data centers contribute significantly to global carbon emissions through their energy consumption and electronic waste generation. Beyond the direct energy usage of powering servers and cooling systems, the production, operation, and disposal of data center infrastructure also contribute to carbon emissions. To mitigate this impact, potential solutions include transitioning to renewable energy sources, implementing energy-efficient technologies, and optimizing data center designs for maximum efficiency. Additionally, improving data management practices to minimize the storage of unnecessary or underutilized data can help reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions associated with data centers. These efforts require a holistic approach that considers both the operational and infrastructure aspects of data centers to achieve meaningful reductions in their environmental footprint.

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