cloudfactoryThe New York Times just ran a series on the destructive impact of cloud computing. In it, they publish their findings on the energy consumption and environmental impact of the datacenters that power our favorite web and mobile apps, store our data, and deliver our electronic communications. Another way to phrase that: the datacenters that give us the ability to stalk our “friends” on Facebook, that store the world’s largest collection of cat videos known to mankind on YouTube and our collective stream of consciousness on Twitter, and that store those email attachments from 1999 that you’ll probably never look at again.

No, really, I’m not that cynical. The web has permanently altered our reality — socially, economically, politically, educationally — for the better. It’s made us more connected, knowledgeable, and empowered than ever. We can’t give up on that — if anything, we need to accelerate it.

However, the “cloud” is not some amorphous thing — it’s a bunch of huge warehouses in Virginia and California and all over, each full of thousands of servers doing our bidding, all sucking energy from the grid and from on-site diesel generators. That’s the reality. The operators of these datacenters, and their clients, don’t operate in a vacuum — they should be held just as responsible for their environmental footprint as the paper companies they purport to displace.

Do you want to know how bad it is? Here’s the straight dirt: about 90 percent of the 30 billion watts of electricity consumed by datacenters worldwide is pure waste. That waste is equivalent to the output of 27 nuclear power plants — enough to power 20.5 million U.S. homes. That, to me, is staggering.

If you’re in the industry like me, what can you do? First, understand your systems and consolidate wherever possible. Second, stop being a prima donna about bare metal performance and adopt virtualization to bring your utilization up. Adopt an agile, elastic approach to server commission. Finally, know when to throw in the towel. Don’t keep your servers up and running just because it’s cheap and you may need it somewhere down the road.

If you’re not in the industry, but you do live in the 21st century with the rest of us and use the web, start asking questions. See that contact link? Ask them if they’re paying attention to their electricity usage, because I guarantee most of them aren’t. If I were King for a day, I’d have every website and hosting company post metrics on their energy usage and efficiency. That might not be my first act as King, but yeah, I’d do that.

Matt Olson is a systems thinker, hacker, and social entrepreneur proud to call Chico home. He's a software engineer with a particular interest in using social business to address seemingly intractable problems. When it's time to relax, you'll find him on the roads and trails of the North State on his Homer Hilsen, playing bocce, or building robots with his boys.