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Industry Insight

Fluffy, white digital clouds?

The cloud is actually made up of servers that contribute dramatically to a deluge of digital waste.

Webopedia defines cloud computing as a type of computing that "relies on sharing computing resources rather than having local servers or personal devices. In cloud computing, the word cloud is used as a metaphor for ‘the Internet', so the phrase cloud computing means ‘a type of Internet-based computing', where different services – such as servers, storage and applications – are delivered to an organisation's computers and devices through the Internet."

To a degree, cloud computing is what enables big data. How else are users going to store and analyse the volume, velocity and variety of data flooding the world?

It is a bit of a misnomer. A cloud always makes me think of white… wispy and innocent. A bit of fluffy nothingness, far above me, which could harbour a storm or two. Maybe that is just my take on things, though. Perception is a funny old thing. The reality is – cloud computing is anything but wispy and innocent. Nothing is stored in a ‘cloud' of ethereal awesomeness where space and security are never, ever an issue.

The cloud, as it were, is an ever-increasing set of actual physical servers that contribute rather dramatically to an ever increasing (sometimes exponentially) deluge of digital waste. And, like it or not, digital waste is a huge contributor to global warming.

Changing gears

Depending on the expert at the microphone, Mother Earth is either on the brink of – or smack dab in the middle of – the next great extinction (the sixth, and perhaps, last). It doesn't really matter which one people subscribe to, though. The truth of the matter is humanity is driving, at breakneck and frightening speed, towards an unprecedented ecological disaster of humanity's own making. Biological annihilation as it were. People are burning fossil fuels, chopping down forests, and completely decimating animal and plant life at a horrific pace.

Define the deluge:
Digital waste is generally thought of as all of the physical bits and bobs that accompany the reality of a digital lifestyle. Broken electronics, motherboards, screens, outdated smartwatches, last year's cellphones, tablets, all the miles and miles of cables and chargers, etc. The list is very, very long.

Footprints in the rain forest:
However, digital waste should also be thought of in terms of the carbon footprint. What about the servers, the buildings that house servers, the air conditioning units that cool down those servers, multiplied by the need. The need for users to consume and understand data. Lots and lots and lots of big data that needs to be stored somewhere.

Silver lining

While those in the know warn about the electricity consumption and carbon footprint of cloud computing more than doubling from 2007 levels by 2020, the ‘big guns' are attempting to promote efficient computing along with the increased use of renewable energy. Hence the creation of an organisation called The Green Grid. "The Green Grid's mission is to drive accountable, effective, resource-efficient, end-to-end ICT ecosystems."

Cloud computing is anything but wispy and innocent.

Basically, it is a group of concerned organisations and businesses that have a vested and tangible interest in trying to counter and limit the carbon footprint of the digital age, which is all fine and well. There is a nifty and rather cool little Web site called Internet live stats. It is one of the more reliable ‘running counter' type Web sites out there and it is more than a little bit startling to see, in real-time, the amount of electricity being used or the volume of CO2 emissions for a particular moment of a day.

So, yes, initiatives like The Green Grid and applications like Blackl (a Google-powered search engine that either saves electricity or is powered using renewable energy – location dependent) are a step in the right direction. However, I fear that unless humans undergo a fundamental and intrinsic shift in priorities, the journey down the path to destruction is going to be filled to overflowing with data, cloud computing, digital goodies, the newest and best phones/laptops/devices, with almost no real quality of life.

So, perhaps the answer lies in the skills that any good BI analyst should be fostering and nurturing. Perhaps, a portion of all data discovery should involve the active and prioritised analysis around what can and should be done to counter the effects of the data and digital explosion. In my opinion, best practice should automatically and unequivocally equate to renewable and refurbished and recycled.

Analysts of all kinds have spent many years developing a very particular skill set, of finding all the needles in all the haystacks and piecing them together. Why not use those specialised skills, along with the data already available, and find a way to prevent the data still to be collected from doing more damage to an already fragile environment. Perhaps, it is time to bring humanity back into the data equation.


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