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Not All Heroes Wear Capes…

I found myself thinking about the amount of time that we spend on the web nowadays. Almost all our jobs involve spending hours on the internet, corresponding with remote team members or customers, creating marketing campaigns, building websites and apps… And in our free time we indulge in long social media breaks, FaceTime conversations or stream movies on Netflix with our phones.

For all of this to happen and our devices to connect and function on the internet we need some special computers called servers and we need power to make them work, too. Servers let us enjoy the internet from the comfort of our screens but also can run the code to build a website, store data and let us do other amazing things! For example they allow us to run hydro simulations to make sure that dams run properly in an under-the-sea-level country like the Netherlands, but also calculate chances of Tsunamis in Japan and they find their use in the med tech industry and biology labs as well, for example in the case of protein folding or HIV and cancer medicine research.

Usually servers are collected in buildings called data centers, which can range from a small room with a few machines to humongous farms with over 150k square meters of surface. There are approximately 9 million of these data centers across the globe, out of which almost 400 are hyper scale, in total taking up to almost 836 square kilometers of space, an area bigger than New York City.

For us to be able to be connected and computing at all times on both sides of the equator, these data centers have their servers working full time, every day of the year, thus using about 10% of all the power utilized by the United States’ Government. Well, that’s also because if the internet were to go down even just for a handful of minutes, companies would lose billions of dollars (an estimate calculates $5,600 of loss per minute of IT downtime)!

Imagine now the amount of energy used by the people working for the data centers to commute every day, the power needed to make the servers work and to keep the data centers up and running and sum it all up. Huge, right? Yet, the problem is another.

You are probably familiar with the heat that your laptop generates and radiates on your legs when you’re overworking in bed on your out-of-office day. Now picture the heat that all the servers in a data center can produce. In most data center aisles, the servers cause the temperature to be around 27 to 46 celsius degrees. The ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers) recommends a temperature in between 18 and 27 celsius for servers to operate in. The difference between the actual and needed temperature can then be quite dramatic and needs to be taken care of to avoid putting the servers’ operability at stake. Well, for a computer to work you need a ventilation system and for a data center to function you need air conditioning. Which means that those aforementioned 836 square kilometers need to be cooled down constantly, causing further pollution at an impressive degree. In fact, the energy to cool down the data centers is even more than the needed amount to make the servers function!

Data centers now utilize over 3% of the global electricity supply, not to mention that their greenhouse gas emissions account for approximately 2% worldwide, placing them in the same carbon footprint area as the airline industry.

Our internet consumption is constantly on the rise, having become some sort of pleasurable addiction for the average millennial and a crucial tool for scientific progress, both in terms of research and simulations, but this brings to an issue. If some companies are now trying to use renewable sources of energy to bring power to their servers and allow us to connect to the Internet of Things in a less guilty way, what about all the energy that is dissipated trying to cool those servers down? Some options are starting to emerge in the market yet all with some considerable downsides. Placing servers under the sea, like Microsoft did with Project Natick, might reveal itself to be problematic in case of need of maintenance. Not just that, it would not reutilize the generated heat but just dissipate it in sea water. We at Nerdalize are offering a very clear and convenient solution, because we don’t believe in zero sum games.

Why build a data center if you can put servers in people’s homes and re-utilize the energy used for the computations to heat up their water? That’s why at Nerdalize we have built a heating device based on computer servers. Instead of heating up data centers, we heat up water to 55 celsius degrees. One of our server-heaters can supply 80% of the needed heating for a household of four. This lets us save up 2 tons of CO2 per home per year and the benefits are not just for the environment! The Dutch citizens hosting our servers in their homes get cheaper energy, saving approximately €200 per year on heating. The lack of need for physical space to contain our servers is one of the factors impacting our cost structure, allowing us to offer a cloud service, for simulating water levels or folding proteins, at a price that is 40% lower than our competitors’ with no compromise on performance. Not all heroes wear capes, but they sure do all care about the planet!

About our sustainability
Elena Galli
posted this October 8