Are We Drowning Ourselves in Data?

Remember way back when, back when you had a limited size on your free Hotmail account and you had to delete old messages or else you couldn’t get new mail?

Turns out those were the good old days, environmentally speaking.

Now we have unlimited inboxes holding thousands of emails we’re loath to delete but will never actually read, loads of free space to upload videos to YouTube that our friends will watch once and never again, Facebook accounts where we all upload the same photographs from the party last weekend…and the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, this “free” space isn’t actually free. It all needs to be stored somewhere, and that “somewhere” is a data center. These mammoth facilities house trillions of pieces of data on huge servers, all of which need to be powered – and cooled. Because computers generate heat, the majority of the power usage in a data center is to cool the facility. Depending on the location of the facility, this power bill can be astronomical. In 2005, data centers were taking up more than 1.4% of the total US energy consumption. And because the data storage requirements have more than doubled in the past 10 years, the energy requirements have grown with it. The prediction is, in fact, that between 2010-2015, twenty new 1,000 megawatt (mW) power plants will be required in order to feed data centers alone.

It’s also taking a personal toll. We can’t find anything. We maintain piles upon piles of virtual data, tens of thousands of photographs on our hard drives, but we can’t actually access anything easily. Just like that pile of paper on your office desk causes you stress, so too does the virtual pile of emails in your inbox.

So what’s to be done? To paraphrase the mantra of green folk everywhere: Reduce, reduce, reduce. Delete old emails and duplicates of photos. Take down those old videos off YouTube. Instead of keeping all 120 photos of last Saturday night’s party, including the out of focus or unflattering ones, delete everything that’s not worth keeping before you display the favorites. Your data center – and your friends – will thank you.

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Photo credit: Shannon McKarney


Mit W.
Mit Wes5 years ago

Mikaila H., you might be able to recover a small amount of energy, at much higher cost than is worth it. But thermodynamics won't allow for anything more than that. You might be better off, if the particular server facility is large enough, to use the excess heat to heat nearby structures.

Mit W.
Mit Wes5 years ago

A 2 TB drive from Western Digital uses 6 watts when active. Your 10GB mail account plus backup would then only use .06 Watts. I think the priority of this may be on the order of keeping a couple of phone chargers plugged in when not in use.

You'll do far better to replace your CRT with a flatscreen display, and put your computer in hibernation or outright shutdown when you are going to not use it for the next 15 or more minutes.

If it does bother you, but you still want to keep all your photos, etc, store them locally in an external drive (they're huge and cheap, these days) and only power it up when you want to access them. Storage in the cloud does require the servers out there to be on 24/7 for your data.

Bill K.
Bill K5 years ago

i've been deleting old emails and files. it's amazing how they accumulate. thanks for this article.

Justina G.
Justina Gil5 years ago

Definitely how i feel. So many emails from Care2 haha. but its ok (: i enjoy them it just takes forever to check,

Bernard Cronyn
5 years ago

The data is not the problem it is the human with an obsessive nature. Some store old clothes, used motor vehicle spares, plastic bags and so on; some store data because they are obsessive. Blaming "things" for human idiocies is popular but highly illogical.

Mikaila H.
Mikaila H5 years ago

Something should be invented to convert the heat back into energy to power the system. Is that possible? It would save a lot of energy that way. I don't know enough in that area to be useful. I wish I did. Anyway, I'll down the space I use and pass the info onto others.

Mikaila H.
Mikaila H5 years ago

I didn't think about it like that. It didn't even occur to me to think about it. Thankyou. I will be alot more mindfull of what I keep.

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

redo di aver sbagliato a votare No, la mia intenzione era quella di eliminare tutti i salvataggi superflui,non sò se ho votato bene. Qualcuno mi può aiutare a capire? Grazie.

Tony C.
Tony C5 years ago

I was not aware that my email hoarding could damage the planet. like a lot of people I thought this was all somehow whirling around in the invisible ether. Oh. man - and we thought by saving paper by going electronic we'd have a smaller environmental footprint.

ruth a.
ruth a5 years ago

good suggestions!