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RISE 2019: Rapid tech innovation worsening cloud's environmental impact

The sheer speed at which technologies including video streaming and 5G wireless are developing is exacerbating the environmental impact of cloud computing, VMware Inc.'s Chief Technology Officer Ray O'Farrell said.

The emerging technologies are acting as a "double-edged sword" for consumers who are excited by their potential but unaware that growing cloud consumption requires huge amounts of energy, O'Farrell said at Hong Kong's RISE technology conference on July 11.

"To leverage more technology such as the internet of things, we need more cloud servers. ... This has an impact on the carbon footprint," he said.

Increasing reliance on mobile and cloud computing has led to significant levels of energy being generated in data centers, which rely on a mix of power sources such as coal, nuclear and wind.

According to a 2017 Greenpeace environmental report, video streaming platforms, in particular, are a "tremendous driver of data demand" with 63% of global internet traffic in 2015. The report projects this figure to reach 80% by 2020 with Netflix Inc. alone accounting for one-third of internet traffic in North America. The report also points out that China's tech giants Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Baidu Inc., which are investing heavily in their cloud businesses, lack access to renewable energy due to monopoly utilities in the country.

Tech companies have started to become more conscious of their environmental impact. Google LLC considers what energy infrastructure is available locally when choosing data center locations. The power usage effectiveness of the search engine's data centers is 1.11, compared to the European average of 1.7.

In a March release, Netflix said it uses as little electricity as possible and matches 100% of its direct power usage with regional renewable energy certificates, or RECs. RECs are market-based instruments that represent the environmental, social and other nonpower attributes of renewable electricity generation and are issued when 1 megawatt-hour of electricity is generated and delivered to the grid from a renewable energy source. In 2018, Netflix's annual direct energy use was about 51,000 MWh, compared to approximately 40,000 MWh in 2016.

Meanwhile, Tencent said it plans to apply innovative technology to its data centers and "be the exemplar of green data centers in the [Chinese] industry," according to its 2018 ESG report.

O'Farrell said some tech companies have started to use virtualization strategies, which involves creating a software-based representation of physical hardware, to address their carbon footprint through the reduction of servers and networking devices.

"For most of Asia, virtualization is low, around the 30% to 35% range, so there is a big opportunity for these countries to restrategize [and save energy]," he said.

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