You’d have trouble finding Google’s data center in The Dalles, Oregon if someone didn’t point it out to you. The complex isn’t small – it takes up about 800,000 square feet, just slightly less than 14 football fields — but the unassuming silver-and-beige building doesn’t scream “high tech” unless you already know what to look for.
The biggest giveaway is not what you see, but what you don’t. The undecorated data centers don’t easily give away their owner, and you won’t see loaded trucks passing through the facility’s gates. Columbia Road, a two-lane slice of pavement the heads into the heart of the complex, is among the precious few streets you can’t visit through Google Street View.
Anonymous data centers like this will power Google Stadia, the company’s bold expansion into gaming. The company spoke proudly of the platform’s many benefits to gamers and game developers at its GDC 2019 announcement. If it catches on, it will effectively kill off the home console and physical games, replacing them with the cloud. Every game you own will live in the cloud, accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection, playable on any device. The goal is nothing less than a reinvention of the entire video game industry.
Stadia could be great for gamers that can’t afford the latest hardware. Yet changing the way we play will have unintended consequences. Google’s Stadia – and services like it – might be bad news for anyone hoping to reverse course on global warming.
Leading by example
To Google’s credit, its data centers in The Dalles are arguably the model of what a modern data center should look like. Even their location is part of the company’s strategy. The Dalles is a city of less than 16,000 people, located an hour and a half east of Portland, Oregon. It doesn’t scream high-tech, but it does have excellent access to renewable energy.
Oregon is among the nation’s renewable energy leaders, with over three-quarters of electricity generation coming from renewable sources.
Gary Cook, Senior IT Sector Analyst for Greenpeace, says Google is more responsible than many of its peers. “They [Google] are one of the few companies that, as they are working to expand their infrastructure, they are trying to line up access to renewable energy where they build these data centers,” Cook says.
The Dalles’ data centers are a perfect example. They’re located just a mile away from The Dalles Dam, one of several hydroelectric plants that can be found along the Columbia River. Oregon is among the nation’s renewable energy leaders, with over three-quarters of electricity generation coming from renewable sources.
That stands in contrast to Amazon, which also hosts a huge volume of streaming content from its ever-growing list of facilities.
“Amazon is light-years behind them [Google, Microsoft]. Amazon’s rapid growth came with a commitment to renewables, and they kind of just walked away from it at the end of 2016,” says Cook. While Google makes efforts to build near renewables, Amazon has encouraged explosive growth in Virginia, where a swarm of new data centers (lead by Amazon Web Services) has overwhelmed plans to invest in green energy and spurred demand for fracked-gas power.
Renewables make up just 4 percent of the state’s energy production. While Google has four facilities currently located in Virginia, Greenpeace’s Click Clean Virginia report estimates they use a relatively modest 77 megawatts of power per year. Amazon, meanwhile, has seventeen sites hosting at least three facilities each which, in total, consume an estimated 1,686 megawatts per year.
The focus on renewable energy is paired with a focus on efficiency. Google, like many of its competitors, publishes Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) figures for its data centers on a quarterly basis. This measures the additional power consumed in support of every watt a data center consumes for computation.
The first of the two data centers in The Dalles reached a PUE of 1.11 last quarter, while the second, newer facility hit a PUE of 1.24. A report published by MDPI’s Energies journal in 2017 pegged the average global data center PUE at 1.8, meaning Google’s data centers are far more efficient than most. This is true of all Google’s data centers, which reached a “fleet wide” PUE of just 1.1 in the fourth quarter of 2018.
Will others follow?
At a glance, Google’s commitment to efficient data centers based on renewable energy might calm any worry about cloud gaming’s demand for power. The company’s data centers are constantly improving efficiency not only as a moral imperative, but also to save money.
Yet Amazon’s decision to step away from renewable efforts serves as a cautionary tale. Google’s focus on renewables and efficiency is voluntary. There’s no reason why Google couldn’t step away from its commitments.
There’s also nothing to keep a less responsible competitor like Amazon out of the fight. Amazon already has a game engine, called Lumberyard, that is built to work with Amazon Web Services, and the company has a major stronghold in gaming through its ownership of Twitch. A cloud gaming service wouldn’t be a stretch for Amazon. Yet unless the company listens to its own employees and makes a drastic new commitment to environmentally friendly operations, Amazon’s entry into cloud gaming would represent an immediate problem for anyone hoping to game without leaving behind a massive carbon footprint.
Even if Amazon remains on the sidelines, others won’t. Nvidia, Sony, and Shadow are among the companies that already have cloud gaming services available, and others will no doubt follow their lead. Not all these companies have Google’s focus on efficiency. In fact, the smallest players will be forced to rely on colocation data centers, which rent out services on demand to those who need them, or purchase compute power from a major industry player like Amazon. This can lead to tangled web of connections that makes it hard to know the efficiency of a cloud gaming service.
I reached out to Nvidia, Sony, and Shadow for this article. Only Shadow offered comment. A spokesperson for the company said efficiency “definitely a factor in how we choose a peering partner when we are looking to expand our datacenter operations.” Shadow also provided efficiency figures for three of the colocation data centers its partners with, which averaged out to a relatively good PUE of 1.44 (not as low as Google, but lower than the industry average). Shadow’s transparency was refreshing. Unfortunately, it’s not yet the norm for the industry.
Nvidia and Sony don’t make these figures known and haven’t made any public commitments to renewable energy for their cloud gaming services. Sony does have a “PlayStation and the environment” page available on the PlayStation site, but it addresses the company’s physical products. And while Google does provide some publicly available details about data center operations, it did not provide comment for this article.
The gamer’s demand
Even the best efforts might be for naught, however, because of one massive, undeniable issue. Demand.
Ubiquitous mobile data has turned streaming services like Netflix into bandwidth gluttons. Video streaming now makes up well over half of all internet traffic, and some estimates claim that figure will rise above 80 percent by 2021.
Incredibly, this massive spike has occurred over the course of a decade; streaming video made up 30 percent of global data in 2009, and only ten percent in 2005. The rapid acceleration of video streaming was spurred not only by the adoption of smartphones worldwide, but also by improved mobile data connections that made high-quality streaming possible.
5G will likely up the ante, and while mobile devices will benefit massively from improved bandwidth and lower latency, those perks will only spur more frequent use of streaming services. “I’ve seen projections going from 75 billion connected devices to 500 billion,” says Greenpeace’s Gary Cook. “That’s a much bigger ecosystem of internet connected devices, and especially in streaming, that’s expected to drive demand.”
With Stadia set to launch in 2019, gaming is set to become a major player in that explosive growth. No study has evaluated the current bandwidth use of global game streaming, and no projections have been made – but gamers are legion. Nearly 70 percent of Americans play video games, and most estimates put the worldwide gamer headcount above two billion.
Not all gamers would identify themselves as such. Many play on smartphones which, again, will benefit greatly from 5G – and that’s only to streaming’s advantage. A service like Stadia makes it possible for anyone to play high-quality games on any device — even an inexpensive phone. Unlike a game console, which inevitably targets a more hardcore audience, Stadia embraces the “Netflix for gaming” cliché. It’s designed for mass consumption.
Extreme estimates fear data centers could account for 20 percent of all global energy consumption by 2025.
A surge in demand will drive the need for even more data centers, and more centers will inevitably drive up power consumption. The industry-wide numbers are alarming. U.S. data centers used over 90 billion kilowatt-hours in 2017, with worldwide consumption estimated above 200 terawatt-hours. The most extreme estimates fear data centers could account for 20 percent of all global energy consumption by 2025.
A portion of the increased consumption at data centers might be offset by reduced consumption in homes. Gamers that embrace Stadia may decide they don’t need a powerful home PC and instead stick with a less capable device, like a laptop, that draws less power. Yet the hope that reduced home use will offset the impact of cloud gaming is misplaced. Research shows that streaming entertainment from the cloud uses more energy overall even when it lets the viewer – or gamer – slim down their energy use at home.
Dr. Evan Mills, leader of the Green Gaming project and former Senior Scientist from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, has spent years looking into the largely neglected question of how gaming devices consume energy. He sees some potential in cloud gaming because the nature of data centers means “a given amount of work can be achieved with widely-ranging efficiencies. Herein lies the main opportunity of energy efficiency in general, and green gaming in particular.” Unfortunately, the opportunity for efficiency is offset by a data center’s infrastructure need. “[…] for identical computing power, cloud-gaming will virtually always entail substantially more overall energy use than gaming strictly on a local client,” he says.
“Cloud-based gaming is by far the most energy-intensive form of gaming via the Internet”
A 2018 study published by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory puts numbers to the problem. It found that “cloud-based gaming is by far the most energy-intensive form of gaming via the Internet […]” and that, depending on the device and load, cloud gaming might increase overall consumption by up to 300 percent.”
Alarmingly, the largest gains in total power draw take place on the most efficient devices. Google boasts that Stadia, which uses a custom AMD chip, can deliver 10.7 teraflops of total compute power – several times that of Microsoft’s Xbox One X. Yet that device could simply be accessed on a Google Pixel phone or Chromecast streaming device. Evans found that was dramatic in his research, saying the “worst-case’ would actually be a media-streaming device (like Nvidia Shield), which pulls only 10 watts or so in the home, yet requires many hundreds of watts of power upstream.”
This represents a huge increase in per-session power draw yet, at the same time, gives gamers reason to think they’re making a more responsible decision. The environmental costs are physically moved away from a gamer’s home and to the data center, a place that’s tightly controlled by its owner and located many miles away. Gamers might notice they’re using less power at home and conclude that cloud streaming is a win-win.
And not all the power goes to rendering a game in lavish detail at the data center. At least some of it also goes to the network needed to push the data cross from a data center to your home. The largest tech companies, including Google, have vast private networks that specialize in delivering huge amounts of data to users. They’re highly effective – their reliability and speed made modern video streaming possible – but they have their own infrastructure, which also sucks down electricity.
To Dr. Mills, this is the hidden variable that most people don’t consider. “In our calculations for PC cloud gaming, the datacenter is responsible for about 340 Watts of power per user and the network an additional 180 watts,” he says.
The exact numbers can shift depending on the device used to stream, the network bandwidth required, the distance data must travel, the efficiency of the data center powering the cloud gaming service, and many other factors. There’s no way for a user of any streaming service, whether it serves up games, video, or anything else, to know how much power the convivence demands.
Only one thing is plain, definitive, and transparent; the numbers never shift in a way that lets cloud gaming use less power than local gaming, and there’s no clear path towards making that a reality.
Making a service easier to access drives demand, and that demand is often greater than what efficiency can offset.
Yes, data centers are becoming more efficient. But to Greenpeace’s Cook, efficiency can become its own sort of curse. “Your per unit, per gigabyte energy required to deliver that may go down, but the overall level of consumption continues to go up. And it actually goes significantly up,” he says. “In some ways, the efficiency enables more consumption.”
That’s a core problem that spans all human innovation. Stadia, like video streaming before it, and the world wide web for that, is possible thanks to vast improvements in efficiency. But making a service easier and less expensive to access inevitably drives demand, and that demand often dwarfs what efficiency can offset. Cloud gaming will be no different.
The physical question
While the effect cloud gaming could have on power consumption is simple to calculate, it’s also somewhat abstract. The impact of greater power consumption, and the larger carbon footprint that comes with it, isn’t plain to see. Carbon emissions mostly come not from the data centers, but from the power plants that supply them.
Power isn’t the only resource that data centers consume, however. Many facilities require a surprising amount of water. This consumption often come from cooling towers, such as those found atop Google’s data centers in The Dalles, and data centers can indirectly spike water consumption when the power plants used to supply them require water.
“Water is something we’re looking at, because in some cases they’re [data centers] blocking out a fair number of water rights to be used for looking,” says Cook. “The biggest problem is some of the deals being done, where a significant amount of water is allocated to data centers that don’t get much public discussion.”
In one instance, a new Google facility in Berkeley county, South Carolina requested 1.5 million gallons of water per day. Requests like aren’t secret, exactly, but they typically pass under the radar, and the communities impacted by the request rarely have direct input on whether the request is approved. While public outcry helped slow the process of approving that particular requests, Google’s existing permits allow the company to use 548 million gallons per year, and requests for more remain pending.
“A significant amount of water is allocated to data centers that don’t get much public discussion.”
The data center industry has an efficiency metric for water, just as it does for power, but the issue hasn’t gain as much attention so far, and few companies publish water efficiency figures for their facilities. While water is plentiful in some areas, it’s far more of a concern in places prone to drought, like California.
Physical waste is another open question. Cloud gaming might reduce physical waste, in theory, because it could reduce the demand for gaming devices like consoles and graphics card. Data centers do own hardware, however, and that hardware is often changed frequently.
Google, as in other areas, seems to care more for the environment than its peers. The company uses what it calls a “circular economy” model of data center management, which focuses on repair and reuse as much as possible. Excess, broken, or obsolete components are sold or recycled as needed. As a result, six of Google’s data centers hit a 100% “landfill diversion rate” in 2016.
As with so much else in the data center industry, it’s unclear exactly how Google will uphold this standard going forward. The company doesn’t publish exact figures on how much garbage its data centers produce and where it goes and says little about how future plans could change it commitments.
Stadia, for example, poses an obvious problem. The promise of cutting-edge performance is part of the appeal to gamers, and that suggests the company will have to frequently update its servers with cutting-edge hardware. Might that disrupt Google’s commitment to a circular economy?
Reaping the real for the virtual
Cloud gaming ultimately leads to an uncomfortable question. To what extent are we willing to damage the real world in pursuit of a better virtual future?
I don’t have the answer to this question. No one does. Like the rest of the debate over global warming and our environment, the answer is something that both individuals and societies must decide for themselves.
The real danger of cloud gaming – and of all forms of streaming, in fact – is how it obscures the question. Gaming on a local device might remind you of your impact when it comes time to ditch your own console, or when you accidentally leave your high-end gaming PC on World of Warcraft’s character select screw overnight. Cloud gaming, however, moves the consequences to a remote location and makes the results opaque.
We should ask for better. We must. Even a company like Google, which has some respect for the environment, will only be as responsible as we force it to be.