The Hardware of The Cloud

by Bruna Ciulli

So, sharks are gnawing away at the internet. The occurrence of shark attacks on underwater internet cables is rare, especially since companies such as Google have begun reinforcing their cables with Kevlar. That being said, shark interference in the physical system that transports 99% of cloud data, be that Netflix films or corporate cyber security is startling. In what way are our seemingly immaterial virtual experiences and industries impacting the planet in adverse and unexpected ways?

Underwater internet cables lie at the bottom of deep, relatively flat parts of the ocean floor. On average, these cables are about the width of a garden hose containing many fragile, signal carrying glass filaments. They operate with fibre-optic technology, firing laser rapidly to receptors at the other end. There are approximately 1.3 million kilometres of these internet cables which have been laid by massive, highly regulated ships. Along the Irish coastline, 27, often thousand kilometres long, cables terminate. After being laid, these cables cause relatively minimal environmental disturbances, however, they are at risk from more than sharks. Providing vital connection for entire communities, they can become pressure points in geopolitical conflicts, similarly, the recent volcanic eruption in Tonga demonstrated the cables’ vulnerability. Interestingly, cables can also suck up microplastics which can cause malfunctions. These cables are generally owned by telecommunication companies with a great deal of recent investment for multination corporations like Amazon, begging questions about who owns the virtual connections we take for granted.

Data centres are a particularly pertinent topic in Ireland. Across the state, there are 70 operational data centres and eight more under construction. Most of these are located in Greater Dublin area, which has become the largest data centre hub in Europe. Attracted by a temperate climate, skilled workforce, potential for renewable energy in wind, hydro, and tidal, and vitally, the low corporate tax rate, companies such as BT, Amazon, Google, Meta, and Microsoft have set up data centres in Ireland. Though there has been a recent slowing-down in the proposition of new centres, there is no sign of a complete stop as a Tiktok centre will be one of the multiple new additions this year.

“As of 2021, the International Energy Agency estimated that data centres accounted for 1% of global electricity consumption and, thereby, 0.3% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions”

The environmental impact of these data centres is staggering. EirGrid, Ireland’s state-owned electric power transmission operator, calculates that by 2028 29% of Ireland’s electricity will be used by data centres. As of 2021, the International Energy Agency estimated that data centres accounted for 1% of global electricity consumption and, thereby, 0.3% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, which is only increasing. EirGrid claimed earlier this year that “Data centres can play a hugely important role in… utilisation of renewable energy in Ireland… in turn helping Ireland reach its target of 70% renewable energy by 2030”. You would be forgiven for thinking presupposition seems paradoxical. It is. Inefficient computing within the data centres is partial to blame for the obscene emissions. A 2021 Forbes survey conducted at 100 companies that spend nearly $1 million annually on cloud computing found that “for more than half of these companies, CPU utilisation is only between 20%-40%”. What this means is that servers kept on an underused, standby mode are using the vast majority of the electricity.

Corporations have generally investigated two solutions to this problem, on-site cooling systems and offshore, underwater data centres.The former option is more common. Google, for example, uses an “evaporative cooling” method whereby water is evaporated into cool air. Microsoft has previously used an adiabatic cooling method and a two-phase immersion cooling method in which a fluid with a low boiling rate is boiled by the servers but at a very low temperature, therefore, regulating temperature. Microsoft is attempting to convert much of its data storage to underwater, offshore centres after the success of Project Natick. The project, according to Microsoft, went as follows: “the underwater datacenter [sic] is filled with dry nitrogen air. The servers are cooled with fans and a heat exchange plumbing system that pumps piped seawater through the sealed tube”, and the rate of failures within the centre dropped to one-eighth of that on land.

These projects to increase the efficiency of the computers are fine but as Beth Whitehead, Deborah Andrew, Amip Shah and Graeme Maidment point out in their article for Building and Environment journal, these cooling systems often consume electricity just as voraciously as unused computers. Never mind water consumption and potential environmental disturbances of large data centres along the shoreline. As a result, many hyperscale data companies have rushed to invest in renewable energy, with Amazon becoming the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.

It is not only the large-scale infrastructure that makes up the cloud technologies. Most items that can be connected to the web form a vital part of the cloud technologies. From fitness watches and baby monitors to motion sensors and home assistants, any item with which one accesses the cloud. These cloud technologies can be broadly referred to as the Internet of Things, the analogue connection to the virtual. In the Journal of International Affairs, Shuo-Yan Chou argues that the growing Internet of Things will usher in a fourth Industrial Revolution. This could transform the cloud from being concerned with connectedness in the immaterial and more concerned with production, work, healthcare, big data and so on. Pushing the cloud into all aspects of life already seems to have begun, but can the environment handle it?

From smartphones to electric car components, almost all of these technologies require rare earth elements, including the fifteen lanthanides, scandium, cobalt, and yttrium. As the Internet of Things expands, the demand for these elements has skyrocketed. By 2040 demand is predicted to increase at least six-fold. Extracting REEs from the earth produces “13kg of dust, 9,600-12,000 cubic meters of waste gas, 75 cubic meters of wastewater, and one ton of radioactive residue” for every ton of REE, according to Jaya Nayar at the Harvard International Review. In 2016 China controlled 85% of the market. The lack of proper regulation has led to catastrophic human rights and environmental results, including water poisoning and workers’ health complications. Though some alternatives to toxic mining being research seem positive for the time being it is toxic mining practices which allow us to connect to the cloud.

Physical cloud technologies are complex, spanning firewalls, crypto mining, and satellites. However, each with their own environmental challenges, their complex real-world impacts have been swept under the rug for too long. We see our virtual lives as disentangles from the
land and other species. Between widespread privacy violations and environmental devastation, it is clear that we need a shift in our relationship with the ‘cloud’. There has to be reckoning with the enormous quantity of actual hardware that exists globally; using Google, Tiktok, and even Turnitin has a footprint that we must recognise.

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