Does Efficiency Make Any Difference At All?

Peter Judge

Cheap efficient data centre just allow us all to consume more, warns Peter Judge

Data centre experts are rightly focused on delivering more and more efficient IT services from better and better managed facilities, but is it really saving the planet? A statistic from London’s Data Center Dynamics show last week makes me wonder.

You’ve all heard of Psy’s Gangnam Style video. Most of you will have forgotten it, along with its increasingly desperate spin-offs and parodies, and wisely ignored the efforts of Psy himself to prove he has more mega-hits up his sleeve, through tedious acts of self-plagiarism.

psy gangnam flames

Did Psy burn the planet?

But that original Gangnam Style video went online in July 2012, and has now been viewed nearly 1.8 billion times – by more people than the population of China. Each of those views used an infinitesimal amount of energy at Google’s servers (or network caches), some more in transmission, and a slightly more significant – but still tiny – amount in playing it on a PC which (admit it) probably included yours.

At DCD in London, Ian Bitterlin, CTO of Emerson Network Power brought along some statistics. They came from Jon Summers of the University of Leeds, and can be found online here.

The video is 4.13 minutes long and 17MB in size. The amount of energy used by Google in sending it is unimaginably small – 0.0002kWh per minute. It takes 0.01kWh to transfer 1MB across the Internet (a rough average), and displaying it uses 0.002kWh – depending on your device.

Multiply those figures out by the 1.7 billion people who looked at the video during its first twelve months online, and the total is 312 GWh. That’s the equivalent of a continuous power demand of 36MW, and more than the power used in a year by the 9.8 million population of Burundi (273GWh in 2008).

We collectively spent more electricity watching Psy than ten million Africans had for their whole nation, including schools, hospitals, factories and lighting. Why did this happen? Simply because it can. We binge on online resources, simply because they are cheap and easy for us to use.

william stanley JevonsJevons’ Paradox

It’s an illustration of the oft-quoted paradox of Victorian economist William Stanley Jevons. Improve the efficiency of a process William and consumption won’t fall – it will rise.

All this makes the deliberations on efficiency of data centres seem somewhat redundant. Deliver cheaper cycles and they will be used cheaply, delivering more pointless activity. More will get used, not less.

Somewhat similarly, the personal computing and communications technologies I get to use as a journalist have improved massively. That just means I’m expected to write more stories, and so does every other writer, and video maker, as we compete for your overloaded eyeballs.

And likewise, the explosion in government surveillance – and its own boom in data centre storage and processing – is happening simply because it is economically and technically feasible.

There’s no very obvious way to stop this happening. We are the enemy, not Psy. You can’t legislate to stop people watching Gangnam Style – and even if you could that wouldn’t have the desired effect ov automatically redirecting those wasted resources elsewhere to a real “need”.

So is data centre efficiency a waste of time? I have to hope not. Some of those cheaper resources also get used to ease suffering in disaster zones, and to power new discoveries. And the hundreds of hours of videos that get consumed at least constitute a level of creativity, where Psy flowers alongside arguably more worthwhil things.

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