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In an ever-growing industry, how can data centers keep their power and emissions low?

One of the biggest driving forces behind the web hosting industry is energy efficiency. It’s economically logical, and environmentally ethical. Just like fuel efficiency in cars, the better it gets, the more everyone benefits. But that sometimes leaves us asking, “Why do data centers keep increasing their power consumption?” It’s important to remember that data centers, like automobiles, aren’t just input-output machines. There are a lot more social and technological implications behind their functionality than just efficiency and overall power usage. And according to GigaOm, that’s probably the wrong question to ask.

Why do data centers keep increasing their power consumption?

This continually growing industry offers the world more benefits than just the waning cost per gigabyte. First of all, it is able to diminish, or sometimes eliminate, transaction costs associated with business or social interactions. As an example, the invention and introduction of the telephone diminished the time, money, and travel necessary to communicate with another person in real time. These days, audio or video conferences that are channeled through cloud data centers do require energy, but far less than face-to-face conferences would need, and are even more efficient than dedicated servers. Streaming videos on demand from a service like Netflix takes up resources and emits carbon, but far more emissions come from driving to a store and getting a physical disc that also consumed energy to produce. So, while data centers may increase their overall emissions as more services become popular on the internet, global energy consumption decreases.

Software is also helpful for maximizing workflow efficiency that humans couldn’t possibly manage. For example, parcel delivery services are able to utilize programs that calculate shortest possible delivery routes, the most efficient times of day to travel, and how to reduce peak power requirements to reduce overall costs for everyone. Other software is essential for inventing, designing, and manufacturing products for every industry. These days, nearly every manufactured item is first designed and drafted in some kind of CAD program. Not too long ago, that designing would have been done on paper and drafting tables and communicated to others via mail or in-person meetings. But now, that’s all done digitally. All of that time, energy, and material is saved at the minimal cost of powering computers and data centers.

Even the shift into cloud hosting offers enormous benefits to data centers and customers alike. In traditional dedicated and shared hosting, the server in which a site is located must be running and consuming power regardless of how much of its maximum resources are in use. But because of the painless way that cloud environments are able to scale their resource consumption, they can be consolidated into fewer physical machines at times of low demand. This lowers overall power consumption, which lowers overall data center cost (and emissions), and lowers cost to consumers.

It’s completely natural to conclude that, if data centers climb in power consumption and carbon emissions, then there should be a bigger push to improve their efficiency. But when you look at the big picture, data centers are improving the efficiency of the world.