Nima Boscarino

Up in the clouds

February 09, 2017

I was helping out at a coding workshop the other day when one of the students came to me saying that her computer wasn’t working properly. Assuming there was something wrong with her code, I got ready for some debugging. To my surprise, however, the problem she had was something I hadn’t seen in quite a long time: she had run out of space on her hard drive!

Unless you’re into heavy duty creative work like video editing or game design, most laptops today come with more than enough hard drive space for our purposes. Cloud solutions like Google Docs and Apple’s iCloud can store our photos and documents, and many people use streaming services like Spotify and Netflix instead of filling our computers up with terabytes of songs and movies. I have so little actually saved on my computer, that on the rare occasion when I find myself without a Wi-Fi connection, I have trouble coming up with things to do with it.

Our reliance on cloud storage does have some drawbacks. The most obvious and most talked about issue concerns privacy. If our data is hosted on someone else’s servers, we don’t personally have control over who can see and tamper with that data. At the end of the day, we simply have to trust Facebook, or Google, or whoever it is we’re handing our data over to.

Beyond privacy, there’s also the issue of availability. What happens if one of Instagram’s servers accidentally shuts down? Or even worse, what happens if one of the servers breaks? Do we lose all our hard-earned likes? Luckily, when you upload data to the cloud, it’s usually saved in multiple places around the world. An Instagram image uploaded in Vancouver might be saved on a very fast server somewhere in Oregon, and copies of the image might be backed up on slower servers in places like Ohio, Ireland and Singapore.

While the cloud is often used for hosting websites and storing data, another benefit to having such a large distributed network of servers is that it gives us the ability to process gigantic amounts of data whenever we want. Companies such as Amazon and Microsoft offer services for data analytics, machine learning, game server hosting, video streaming and more at the click of a button. These are things that would have once required you to spend buckets of money to buy, setup and maintain several big, beefy servers that can now be done for just a few dollars a month. Whether you’re just an average Joe wanting to play around with your own virtual machine, a small company launching a website, or an industry giant like Netflix looking for servers to power your entire business, cloud providers are pretty much your one stop shop.

“But Nima,” you might say, “This all sounds great, but what happened to that whole dual nature of technology’ thing you were going for?” It’s a little contrived, but bear with me.

Cloud computing allows many people to share servers, which lowers the total ecological footprint. This is a good thing, but it’s still important to remember that these servers are still running in a data centre somewhere. They may be way out of our sight, but these services account for roughly two per cent of global carbon emissions every year. It’s so easy to click “Play” on Netflix or launch a website that we never really consider the environmental cost. While many companies try to run their data centres in eco-friendly ways – Amazon boasts 40 per cent renewable energy – is that enough to sustain our reckless use of computing power?

Some cities in the world have periodically employed driving restrictions to lower congestion and pollution, letting some people drive on even-numbered dates and others on odd-numbered dates. With a bit of a twist, I can see that something like that working for the Internet too! #SnapchatSunday #TumblrTuesday #DailyDogPicture

(This was originally published in the Capilano Courier in February 2017)