Pondering the environmental impact of VPS hosting

I am a geek with a very damaging passion. I am the cofounder of Runasimipi.org, a group which promotes the usage of Andean indigenous languages in free/libre/open source software and the internet. I could wax long on the reasons why I do this strange activity, but let’s focus on the matter at hand.

Runasimipi.org is planning to release a DVD in about a month with roughly 1GB of content: 6 programs translated to Quechua and/or Aymara and 8 dictionaries for these languages. Although we are planning on burning thousands of DVDs to distribute for free in Bolivia, I am also anticipating that people will start downloading the DVD from our website. If you calculate 200 downloads of the DVD per month, that probably means 250GB-300GB of traffic per month, since many people in the Andes aren’t very tech savvy and try to download things with a normal web browser whose connection breaks, so they have to start the download over. I will try to limit this by posting a notice telling people to use a download manager, but I anticipate lots of partial downloads. In some ways I am lucky, because I will be distributing a DVD in a region where the internet connection is so bad that very few people bother downloading whole DVDs. However, there are a large number of Andeans working in the diaspora in Spain, the US, Argentina, Brazil and Chile where internet connections are better. In addition, there are always a couple academics outside the “Third World” (or should I say the “2/3rds World”) who are intrigued by our project and inclined to checkout novelties like children’s games in Quechua and Aymara.

In the long term, I anticipate that other sites will start hosting downloads of our DVD, and we probably won’t have too large of a burden, but it may be an issue in the short term.

More importantly, we are thinking of developing several websites for speakers of indigenous languages, which I anticipate will have a fair amount of traffic over time. We want to create a website like wordreference.com for indigenous languages where people can do searches online in 8 dictionaries and have forum discussions about that vocabulary. We also want to create online forums for Quechua and Aymara where people can post in their native language and receive feedback from the community of speakers. Of course, it will mostly be just text, but people like to post video and audio clips, especially of indigenous music and dances, so we are going to need a fair amount of bandwidth to serve up all that material and a lot of storage space to hold it.

For almost 4 years I have been paying for a VPS with Tektonic.net. When I first started hosting with Tektonic, their deal of $15 per month for 128MB Dedicated RAM, 10GB and unmetered bandwidth on a 10mbps connection was fantastic. They have since increased that to 196MB RAM and 17GB, but I keep seeing cheaper deals on the Internet, which would give me more memory and storage space. More importantly, I can’t upgrade, because Tektonic has stopped offering their unmetered plans, so I am locked in a legacy service. I anticipate needing a hosting provider which allows me to upgrade over time to more harddrive space and RAM.

While I adore computers and the internet, I came to the frightening realization that our collective passion for computing technology is destroying the planet. Gartner calculated in 2007 that IT causes roughly 2% of global greenhouse gases and a private study by McKinsey in the same year similarly calculated 2%-2.5% of greenhouse gases, despite making many assumptions that lowballed the estimates. The fastest growing segment of the IT sector are the servers, routers and other infrastructure which serve up the data on the network wires. According to one study, between 1990 and 2000, the total energy consumed by servers worldwide doubled and then doubled again between 2000 and 2005. The IT industry is poised to overtake the airline industry in terms of its production of greenhouse gases.
In short, I am contributing to the destruction of the biosphere every time I launch another web page. How do I balance the good our project does socio-linguistically in the Andes with the environmental damage it causes globally by its consumption of fossil fuels and scarce resources and the production of toxic e-waste.

The more I examine the environmental impact of what we do, the more convinced I have become that humanity does not have a future. We are racing to a future where life will be unlivable on our planet for the majority of humanity, and I am actively contributing to the destruction of the biosphere which makes life possible. We are spewing so many toxins and greenhouse gases into our environment, that our descendants will find life barely livable. Many will die of starvation, scratching desperately at the few remain resources to find sustenance. The oceans, which have already lost 40% of their plankton and 90% of their large predator fish stocks, will turn to lifeless algae beds as their waters become too hot and acidic to support the plankton-based food chain. Large regions of the planet will be parched by frequent droughts and famines as deserts extend across northern China, most of Africa, Southwestern US, and Australia. The entire amazonian basin is predicted to start drying up in 2040. By 2100, the worlds’ largest rainforest will probably a large desert in Northern Brazil and pampa grasslands in the southern Amazon. The greatest source of biodiversity on the planet will disappear.

Of course most of humanity won’t notice most of the destruction of the species on our planet. We will be too busy just trying to survive. Studies have shown that all the extra carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will stimulate excess weed growth, but do nothing to stimulate the growth of grains which feed us. Meanwhile the excess ground-level ozone produced by burned dirty fossil fuels like coal will retard the growth by an estimated 20% in most of the planet and 30% in China. Meanwhile, the water flow in most of the world’s rivers will become so sporadic due to the melting of the glaciers and the rapid evaporation in warmer climes, that we will no longer be able to count on river-fed irrigation systems. Our water tables will be so low, that we will have to switch from irrigation to dry farming which produces much smaller yields. Desertification and a warming planet means more frequent drought and famine. Large swaths of the globe will face hunger while the fortunate regions whose carrying capacity hasn’t completely collapsed will become walled fortresses to keep out the desperate eco-refugees.

I see little hope from the science and even less scope for hope from the current reaction of humanity to the news from the scientists. We are doing nothing to avert this looming disaster, aside from increasing our carbon footprint every year and refusing to face reality and change our precious lifestyles.

I have come to the conclusion that my project to promote the use indigenous languages in computers is destroying the very basis of life. My current VPS hoster, Tektonic, advertises that their VPSes only use 4 watts, which doesn’t sound like too much, until you start to calculate 4 watts multiplied by 24 hours per day and 365 days per year. I calculate that my VPS over the last 4 years has consumed 140,160 watt-hours of electricity. Considering that my hosting provider is located in the US with an average of 1.29 lbs of CO2 per kilowatt of electricity, my VPS has probably generated 182 lbs of CO2 over the last 4 years. Considering that the average North American generates 21 tons of CO2 per person per year, that sounds like peanuts, until you start considering that George Monbiot believes that we need to reduce our average annual CO2 production down to 2/3 of a ton per person by 2030 if we wish to avoid the thresholds which could trigger run-away climate change.

I can assuage my guilt with white lie that my contribution to the global problem is relatively minor. If I am going to participate in the destruction of the planet, a Virtual Private Server is far better than a dedicated server, although a managed hosting would probably be a more environmental option. With a VPS, you are using the resources to run your own operating system with its own reserved RAM and hard disk space, whereas conventional hosting shares all resources so far less hardware is needed. The problem is that hardware has very high environmental costs. A 2005 study estimated that the production of a typical home PC with a 17 inch CRT monitor consumed 6400 megajoules of energy, whereas its use for 3 hours per day for a year only consumed 500 megajoules, so 81% of the total energy of a home PC lay in its production and only 19% in its use. For servers which run 24 hours per day, the energy used in operation is a much larger factor, but I cannot forget the cost of that extra RAM, harddrive space, and processing capacity which a VPS requires over a conventional hosting provider. Still, I need root access and full power over the OS since I want to configure my system in ways which a normal hosting provider would never allow.

Tektonic is surely not taking manufacturing energy into account when it calculates 4 watts per VPS. I would hope that it is taking into account additional energy costs, like the cooling of the data center where the servers are housed. There are a number of other factors which are almost never included in the equation, like the energy loss over the power lines before the electricity gets to the data center and the energy for employees to commute to the data center every day, etc. More importantly, there is the energy required to pass all that data over lines to reach its final destination on the internet. The switching and routing hardware to run the internet is growing at a rapid clip.

Even if we forget all these additional factors and just focus on the energy to run the servers which host my VPS, 4 watts seems suspiciously small. If the VPS provider is using dual cpu servers with 16MB of RAM, which suck roughly 250W, then it is possible to host 64 virtual machines with 256MB of RAM each which would consume 4 watts each. The problem is most VPSes use more than 256MB, so the environmental impact is probably larger.

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