Dark satanic mills 2.0: inside the massive server farms storing your data—and harming the planet
Experts suggest data centres will consume one fifth of the world’s electricity by 2030
Your family photos are currently in a warehouse on the edge of the M25. Or maybe they are in a warehouse in Swansea. Or maybe, just maybe, they are not in a prosaic suburb, but in a hollowed-out mountain in Norway.
When we think of the “cloud” we are supposed to think of the ether. But data is not immaterial. The route you took to work in your car today, the time at which you logged in to Facebook, the amount of money in your bank account—all this information is physical, perishable, and it is housed in a farm of computers hidden far from your view.
“A lot of people have the perception of the cloud as something out there,” says Tor Kristian Gyland, pushing his hand out into an expanse of thin air. “It doesn’t matter to them if their data is stored in a field in Ireland, or on a hill outside Barcelona or in a mountain in Stavanger.”
Gyland is the affable and surprisingly un-villainous CEO of Green Mountain, a company that transformed an old NATO ammunition store into an underground data centre. “Digitisation has progressed really quickly. Everyone now has an iPhone, an iPad, a Smart TV. But they don’t know where it’s all actually happening.”
When companies store their data (or rather, your data) there are three methods they can use. They can rent “racks” of servers in a form of storage called colocation. Or they can upload the data to the not-so-nebulous cloud, in which case there is no specific server on which the data is stored at any one time, with it instead rebounding from one server to another. Finally, if you are a Facebook or a Google you can just go and build your own data centre.
Whichever way you go, the final product is a warehouse containing thousands of black boxes whirring with billions of calculations. The precious computers are lavished with air conditioning lest they overheat and malfunction. Data centres positively feast on electricity.
“They are growing like mushrooms,” bemoans Dr Anders Andrae, a Swedish academic who studies the ecological impact of technology. “The number of data centres is increasing by 25 per cent every year and this is leading to at least a 10 per cent annual growth in the sector’s energy consumption.”