Perform a simple search, and you will find Amazon Web Services (AMZN) touches upon the environmental impact of their data infrastructures on their website in an entirely inadequate and embarrassingly oversimplified way. A summarized defense of their practices is found three paragraphs in (of three paragraphs total) — “Cloud computing is inherently more environmentally-friendly than traditional computing.” But how clean is your cloud computing, Amazon? Greenpeace and other environmental protection activists have been asking this question since 2012.
In the early years of cloud computing, many seemed to feign ignorance about the very real, very physical infrastructure of the “intangible” cloud. The cloud, in all its various corporate manifestations, happily sold itself as a mystical, transcendental landscape that performed operations and stored potentially limitless data. The material reality is that the cloud system exists via massive data centers, which pull tremendous amounts of energy as they process and store the expanding network of data that humans constantly alter and generate within the cloud.
Though Amazon Web Services is a global leader in cloud computing, it refuses to disclose a satisfactory record of their infrastructural eco-impact. The only morsel of a positive factual claim regarding their energy consumption on their website is: “Both the Oregon and GovCloud Regions use 100% carbon-free power.” Other than that, Amazon is essentially opaque as to what their environmental effect is on our communities and our planet. Jack Clark, publishing for the UK’s The Register, delves into the dirty history of data center coal usage and why we should be concerned about the energy sources of cloud storage.
The largest internet corporations are often the heaviest data center users, which is why companies like Amazon need to be honest about the stress they place on our ecosystems and adapt their technologies to be more efficient. Underworked, or “zombie” servers are just another example of the problematic and wasteful potential of data storage centers. These immense machines suck up electricity while, essentially, not performing any functions. To read more about zombie servers, Christina Nunez writes on the topic for National Geographic, here.
Amazon’s infrastructure is only growing, with property acquisitions in Virginia, Ireland, and -- more recently -- Melbourne, Australia. A chart of their regional products and services is essentially a map of their physical footprint. Their material domain extends far and wide across the globe — and, disturbingly, Amazon has yet to release any useful, concrete information about its energy usage or plans for sustainability. Greenpeace, in their 2014 resurgent campaign #ClickClean, queries: "What does Amazon have to hide?"
In the wake of the NYC People's Climate March and the UN Climate Summit, demanding a company like Amazon to be more transparent -- and therefore able to be investigated and held accountable -- is a necessary step toward real progress and change.
/ Eloisa Lewis