The tech sector has been under mounting scrutiny over the last decade by environmental groups, businesses, and customers for its increasing energy consumption levels. Attention has recently been turning to the ways in which edge computing can help build more sustainable solutions.
The Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns on Internet Usage
While worldwide energy consumption has significantly dropped as a result of global lockdown restrictions, Internet usage has seen a huge spike.
NETSCOUT, a provider of network and application performance monitoring tools, saw a 25-35% increase in worldwide Internet traffic patterns in mid-March, the time when the shift to remote work and online learning happened for much of the world’s population. That number has stayed pretty consistent. There has been particularly increased use of bandwidth-intensive applications like video streaming, Zoom and online gaming. The spike in Internet use has implications for the sector’s sustainability targets and makes the urgency of a call for change even louder.
Before we look specifically at sustainability in the edge computing field, let’s pull back to take a look at the wider sector.
The Energy Challenge
The information and communication technology (ICT) ecosystem accounts for over 2% of global emissions, putting it on a par with the aviation industry’s carbon footprint, at least according to a 2018 study. Did you know that data centers use an estimated 200 terawatt (Twh) hours each year? This represents around 1% of global electricity demand and data centers contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions.
Where these figures could lie in the future is harder to predict. Widely cited forecasts say the ICT sector and data centers will take a larger slice of overall electricity demand. Some experts predict this could rise as high as 8% by 2030, while the most aggressive models predict that electricity usage by ICT could surpass 20% of the global total by the time a child born today hits his or her teens, with data centers using over one-third of that.
Keeping Future Energy Demand in Check
However, improvements in energy efficiency in the data center field are already making a difference. While the amount of computing performed in data centers more than quintupled between 2010 and 2018, the amount of energy consumed by data centers worldwide only rose by 6% across the same period.
The ICT sector has been hard at work to keep future energy demand in check in various ways. These include:
Streamlining Computer Processes
The shift away from legacy enterprise data centers operated by traditional enterprises such as banks, retailers, and insurance companies, to newer commercially operated cloud data centers has been making a big difference to overall energy consumption.
In a recent company blog, Urs Hölzle, Google’s senior VP technical infrastructure, pointed to a study in Science showing the gains in energy efficiency. Hölzle wrote, “a Google data center is twice as energy efficient as a typical enterprise data center. And compared with five years ago, we now deliver around seven times as much computing power with the same amount of electrical power.”
The study shows how an overall shift to hyperscale data centers has helped reduce the amount of traditional enterprise data center capacity and subsequently reduced overall energy consumption. One of the authors is Jonathan Koomey, a former Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist, who has been studying the subject of data center energy usage for over two decades. Koomey says that forecasts that focus on data growth projections alone ignore the energy efficiency gains the sector has been making.
Facebook has also been exploring ways to maximise efficiency over the last decade. The social media giant started the Open Compute Project in 2011 to share hardware and software solutions aimed at making computing more energy-efficient.
One recent novel idea is that data centers could act as energy suppliers and sell excess electricity to the grid instead of keeping it as an insurance policy. Kevin Hagen, Iron Mountain’s VP of environment, social and governance strategy, describes backup generators and UPS batteries as “useless capital.”
Instead, he asks, “What would it look like if all that money was actually invested in energy systems that we got to use when we were trying to arbitrage energy during the day and night on a regular basis? What if we share control with the utility, so they can see there’s an asset and use it back and forth?”
New Ways to Cool Data Centers
According to Global Market Insights, cooling systems represent on average 40% of entire data center energy consumption. Data center design specialists have been looking into different ways to approach reducing energy needs specifically for cooling, which have been largely approached in the same way for the last three decades. These include locating data centers in cooler areas, using AI to regulate the data center’s cooling systems to match the weather, warm-water cooling, immersion cooling, and rear door cooling systems.
It’s an important problem to be focused on since data centers worldwide contribute to industry’s consumption of 45% of all available clean water.
A Focus on Sustainables
Greenpeace has been putting data centers under the spotlight for over a decade, calling for them and other digital infrastructure to become 100% renewably powered. There has been great progress since 2010 when Greenpeace started its ClickClean campaign when IT companies were negligible contributors to renewable-power purchase agreements; today Google is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.
Apple was at the top of Greenpeace’s list of the top greenest tech companies last year. It already boasts 100% renewable energy to power all its global data centers, and is currently focused on cleaning up its supply chain. Greenpeace has recently called out AWS, however, for a lack of renewables in Virginia’s “data center alley”, which it says is powered by “dirty energy.”
Corporate data centers have traditionally been part of the “dirty energy” problem, but are beginning to participate in seeking out renewable energy. Some of the initiatives in this space include DigitalRealty’s announcement on using wind energy in its 13 Dallas, TX data centers and IronMountain’s Green Power Pass specifically for enterprise customers to be able to participate in renewable energy purchase for its growing number of data centers.
The Role of Edge Computing in Working Towards More Efficient Solutions
Edge computing is also increasingly being looked to as an area that can help work towards more efficient solutions. These include:
Energy Resource Efficiencies
A technical paper published on Arxiv.org earlier this month lifted the hood on Autoscale, Facebook’s energy-sensitive load balancer. Autoscale reduces the number of servers that need to be on during low-traffic hours and specifically focuses on AI, which can run on smartphones in abundance and lead to decreased battery life through energy drain and performance issues.
The Autoscale technology leverages AI to enable energy-efficient inference on smartphones and other edge devices. The intention is for Autoscale to automate deployment decisions and decide whether AI should run on-device, in the cloud, or on a private cloud. Autoscale could result in both cost and efficiency savings.
Other energy resource efficiency programs are also underway in the edge computing space.
Reducing High Bandwidth Energy Consumption
Another area edge can assist in is to reduce the amount of data traversing the network. This is especially important for high-bandwidth applications like YouTube and Netflix, which have skyrocketed in recent years, and recent months in particular. This is partly due to the fact each stream is composed of a large file, but also due to how video-on-demand content is distributed in a one-to-one model. High bandwidth consumption is linked to high energy usage and high carbon emissions since it uses the network more heavily and demands greater power.
Edge computing could help optimize energy usage by reducing the amount of data traversing the network. By running applications at the user edge, data can be stored and processed close to the end user and their devices instead of relying on centralized data centers that are often hundreds of miles away. This will lead to lower latency for the end user and could lead to a significant reduction in energy consumption.
Smart Grids and Monitoring Can Lead to Better Management of Energy Consumption
Edge computing can also play a key role in being an enabler of solutions that help enterprises better monitor and manage their energy consumption. Edge compute already supports many smart grid applications, such as grid optimization and demand management. Allowing enterprises to track and monitor energy usage in real-time and visualize it through dashboards, enterprises can better manage their energy usage and put preventative measures in place to limit it where possible. This kind of real-time assessment of supply and demand can be particularly useful for managing limited renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar power.
Examples in the Wild
Schneider Electric, a specialist in energy management and automation, is beginning to see clients seek more efficient infrastructure and edge computing solutions. This includes helping organizations to digitize their manufacturing processes by using data to produce real-time feedback and alerts to gain efficiencies across the supply chain, including the reduction of waste and carbon emissions. Natalya Makarochkina, Senior VP, International, Secure Power at Schneider Electric, says edge computing is allowing this to happen in a scalable and sustainable way.
Makarochkina highlights two Schneider customers that have used edge computing to improve sustainability and make efficiency savings. The first is a specialty grocer that used edge computing to upgrade IT infrastructure and reduce its physical footprint and consumption requirements, which led to a 35% reduction in engineering cost and a 50% increase in deployment speed for the end user. The second is a co-working space provider that used Schneider’s edge infrastructure options to launch an on-site data center that offers IT infrastructure on demand, offering tenants greater operational efficiencies.
“Edge computing and hybrid cloud play a pivotal role in sustainability because they are designed specifically to put applications and data closer to devices and their users. This helps organisations to better react to changes in consumer demands and improve processes to create more sustainable products.” - Natalya Makarochkina, Senior VP, International, Secure Power at Schneider Electric
At Section, we’re working to provide more accessible options for developers to build edge strategies that deliver on sustainability targets. Our patent-pending Adaptive Edge Engine technology allows developers to piece together bespoke edge networks that are optimized across various attributes, with carbon-neutral underlying infrastructure included in the portfolio of options. Other attributes include cost, performance, and security/regulatory requirements.
Similarly to Facebook’s Autoscale, Section’s Adaptive Edge Engine tunes the required compute resources at the edge in response to, not only the application’s required compute attributes (e.g. PCI compliance or carbon neutrality), but also continuously in response to traffic served and performance. Our ML forecasting engine sits behind the workload placement and decision engine which continuously places workload and scales the underlying infrastructure (up and down) so we use the least amount of compute while providing the maximum availability and performance.
Not many would argue that technology’s immersion in our day-to-day lives is only expected to expand. Technology providers must work together to create sustainable solutions to meet these growing demands. While not an end-all solution, edge computing has the potential to play a key role in helping to control the negative impacts that accompany rising energy demands.