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Streaming media could have larger carbon footprint than plastic discs

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Digital music streams could harm the environment even more than compact discs – so green-minded operators should introduce caching, or even ship their entire catalogues on a single chip.

Those are two options posited by a fascinating MusicTank report on “the hidden cost of digital music consumption”, which examines energy used by the emerging cloud media access model.

“Streaming or downloading 12 tracks, without compression, just 27 times by one user would, in energy terms, equate to the production and shipping of one physical 12-track CD album,” writes report author Dagfinn Bach.

“Repeated streaming of individual tracks may not necessarily be a desirable long-term solution with respect to energy consumption for the life cycle of a sound recording.”

Bach forecasts global data traffic hitting 1 yottabyte by 2027 could require more than a fifth of the planet’s 2010 electricity consumption – something which “depends on sprawling server farms and a complex, energy- sapping network infrastructure”.

Spotify’s app already has a kind of built-in local cache to avoid the necessity to repeat song streams. Bach says “a ‘close-to-consumer’ cloud solution might be the most environmentally-friendly option” for online content delivery.

Cut out the cloud?

But he also moots more radical options for reducing streaming’s carbon footprint. A 1 petabyte drive capable of storing all the songs ever recorded could soon cost just $100, Bach says, observing Moore’s Law.

Right now, the entertainment industry is simply not configured to give away its entire life’s work library – the music sector only last year finally embraced making its roughly 20 million digitised songs available through access services, whose DRM is effectively managed centrally. Pre-loading the whole kaboodle on one drive, even if encrypted, would give executives palpitations about another generation of value destruction, just as they can see subscription access as growing revenue.

Bach says such a drive could ship minus the metadata required to play the songs it contains, which itself could be accessed only via paid subscription from the cloud. But such a drive would clearly be lacking new releases, in a music industry that is fixated by this month’s latest hit.

Nevertheless, MusicTank – a network group for the music industry – is concerned enough to have scheduled an upcoming conference about streaming-music energy consumption.

And the topic will be discussed during a session with data centre power firm Verne Global’s Tate Cantrell at GigaOM’s Structure:Europe conference on October 16.

Cost of YouTube

Separately, Bach says “unlicensed file sharing could consume the equivalent of up to four times the annual combined electricity consumption of all UK households”, while the 33 percent temporary reduction in web traffic seen by Sweden after it introduced anti-piracy laws in 2010 was equivalent to the electricity usage of 2,030 UK households.

Bach also calculates current YouTube energy consumption is around 0.1 percent of 2010 global electricity levels, rising to one percent by 2013.

16 Responses to “Streaming media could have larger carbon footprint than plastic discs”

  1. Michael Wells

    This is junk science, plain and simple. Streaming media, taking youtube just as an example hardly consumes 1% of the energy resources. This is more junk science.

    Taking youtube as an example, their server farm burns about as much juice as two driers — one server burns as much electricity as a 100watt lightbulb. Taking this into account, lets look at how many videos are hosted and for how many people. Approximately 1,000,000,000 hits per DAY, over 2,000,000 videos. Now, lets boil this down to a compact disc or DVD, imagine the plastic (that is enough to wrap around the world 172 TIMES. And they’re not indestructible — you see, people fire up their computer’s DVD buners and make a backup or store them on cloud drives — still burning the SAME energy (if not more) to access these digital copies and they STILL had to harvest the plastic to make them and the computer hardware and energy to copy the data.

    Again, this article is simply bad math and junk science.

  2. Owen Campbell-Moore

    I’m a Google employee and am incredibly skeptical about this. We at Google are the only people in the world who know how much power our servers use or even how many we have (and it is a VERY closely guarded secret) so “Bach”‘s numbers are likely no more than speculation. Combine that with an incentive to write something dramatic and you have a biased author with little information.

    This is not to say people shouldn’t be thinking about the issues presented by the energy use of server farms, but putting numbers on it like this is deceptive and wrong.

  3. This is why I hum. Humming to oneself produces the smallest carbon footprint of any form of musical entertainment, the playlist is limitless, and best of all, you never have to worry about forgetting the words. Try it today– you’ll be humming its praises for life! [Paid for by AHA! -the American Humming Association]

  4. This is a pretty misleading write-up that fails to make a comparison between streaming technology and physical discs using only selected data. Comparing overall server farm stats to the cost of a single CD is short on correlation and long on simpleton logic, it’s Fox news/Washington Post style ‘journalism’. The author extrapolated and fabricated this article presumably just to serve as link-bait, certainly not as any kind of valid sharing of information.

  5. “without compression”

    Why are we even bothering measuring. None of these services would dream of sending uncompressed audio over the internet. Compression will take file size down by a factor of 10 (at least) which means all of the energy numbers derived from storage to transmission will be drastically reduced.

  6. Yeah but the energy needed to stream a song is dropping every 18 months because….

    TEch gets more efficient every 18 months.

    That same 1 petabyte hard drive also means Apple doesn’t need as many hard drives in its servers which means less energy.

    Cpus get more efficient because they do more work every 18 months without requiring more energy to run. That means fewer servers are needed to store songs on.

    Bandwidth also gets more efficient every 18 months or so as we put more data down the pipe for the same energy cost.

    So I think the study has an agenda. It is a good idea to understand that streaming isn’t energy free. And a good idea to work on being more efficient by using caches. But let’s not pretend this is a crisis.

    Plus the parties involved will want to be more energy efficient. IT drops their costs.

    And the cost on the client end to play a song only gets more efficient as well.

    Anyway Itunes caches stuff already from the cloud. I don’t even think you can stream exactly. It will invisibly keep songs on your phone until you need the space.

    Also what this study is saying is that if you stream an entire cd 27 times that will equal the cost of making the cd.

    That is even before you would play the cd. This study says nothing about the cost to play the cd 27 times and how efficient that is.

  7. What a bizarre article. This guy doesn’t actually know what the energy consumption of YouTube is now, much less what all media streaming will look like in fifteen years, and even less, what kid of equipment it will run on.

    The collective minds of the ten biggest bleeding-edge tech companies in the world couldn’t tell you that.