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Powering a Google Search: The Facts and Figures

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We do it so often, it's become second nature. When we don't have an answer, we turn to Google. From business processes to software tutorials and personal questions, we rely on the most powerful search engine in the world to answer our questions in a moment's notice.

Today, Google alone processes more than 40,000 searches from around the world every second. That's 1.2 billion searches per day, and 1.2 trillion searches every year. Of course, by the time the year is over, that number will have grown again as Google continues its rise as the world's preeminent information source.

We know quite a bit about the way Google can scan the web and find the information you need within a fraction of a second. At the same time, the physical power required to get to that point is not nearly as well known. How much energy powers a Google search, both from a user's perspective and when considering the search engine's massive data operations? What steps are Google (and other data-based digital giants) taking to reduce that energy?

The Energy Needed to Power a Google Search

As you might imagine, the energy cost of a single Google search is negligible. The company itself estimates that entering a phrase into its search engine and waiting for the results will cost about 0.0003 kWh, or 1 KJ. Considering the fact that our body needs about 8,000 in daily KJ from food, that means Google uses about as much energy for your search as your body burns in 10 seconds.

The Guardian has another comparison that puts this number into perspective: Searching the web 100 times is equivalent to drinking 1.5 tablespoons of orange juice." Another way of looking at it: one Google search consumes the same amount of energy as turning on a 60W light bulb for about 17 seconds. 

Of course, this expands drastically considering the amount of daily searches. If 40,000 searches occur in a single second, that second alone uses 12 kWh in energy. That's the equivalent of running a ceiling fan continuously for one month.

The Energy Needed to Produce Your Search Results

The energy cost of Google does not vary wildly based on a single search. It's the sheer volume that makes its energy uses so significant. And as it turns out, that makes sense once you break down the actual process behind Google searches.

Most of the energy consumed by the global giant goes to its data centers. In fact, one study estimates that these data centers make up between 80 and 90 percent of Google's total energy usage. It includes running the servers, as well as cooling the building to keep everything running smoothly.

Google has reportedly made its data operations more energy-efficient than most other digital companies. That said, we can still glean a lot about the back-end power behind a Google search by breaking down just how data centers typically consume energy.

Every part of a data center operation consumes electricity. Servers have to be run and maintained, data has to be backed up continually, and the building has to be cooled to keep every server running smoothly. Combine these activities, and you begin to understand why a typical data center consumes between 10 and 50 times the amount of energy per square foot than a typical commercial building.

Breaking down individual variables allows us to understand just where that energy goes. Server hardware costs tend to consume just about half of a data center's budget, but energy-related costs come in second and third. The infrastructure required for power and cooling systems makes up almost a quarter of total costs, while power consumes just about 20 percent of it. Put in perspective, an average data center consumes about as much energy per year as 25,000 homes.

Extrapolate that cost for a single data center to Google's worldwide operations, and the numbers are staggering. Collectively, Google uses about 2.26 million megawatt hours per year to power its global data center operations, which is equivalent to the power necessary to sustain 200,000 homes. 

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  • How Google And Other Companies Are Reducing Their Energy Costs

    It's important to keep sight of perspective. While Google needs significant energy to sustain the infrastructure behind your search query, it has also taken significant steps to reduce its needs. In fact, despite the vastness of its digital operations, the company only needs about 0.01 percent of the world's electricity.

    That this share of global energy consumption has not increased drastically in recent years is largely down to one factor: the company is following other technology giants in trying to limit its energy needs. To do so, it has engaged in a number of initiatives.

    The Guardian reported last year that Google is using AI to reduce its power needs. Through machine learning techniques, data centers can be cooled more efficiently by using historic data to improve current condition. According to Mustafa Suleyman, "the reduction in energy use was achieved through a combination of [the machine learning algorithm] more accurately predicting the incoming computational load – i.e. when people were mostly likely to request data-hungry YouTube videos – and match that prediction very quickly to the cooling load required."

    Efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to less energy usage by technology giants like Google. The needs for data aren't going away anytime soon; in fact, they're only growing.

    Cooling a data center requires up to 40 percent of the total energy required to operate it. As a result, finding ways - such as the above-mentioned machine learning solution - to minimize wasteful cooling is essential. Google's special attention on this aspect of energy usage has brought the proportion of its cooling costs all the way down to 10 percent.

    Of course, focusing on cooling is not the only opportunity taken by digital giants to reduce their energy costs and become more more sustainable. Another opportunity has consisted of custom servers, optimized to only consume as much power as the type of data they store. Finally, software packages can dynamically suggest and implement energy efficiency measures based on current situations, rather than relying only on historical data.

    The Future of Energy Usage in Cloud Computing

    Data centers aren't going away anytime soon. As we move deeper into the digital age, and more and more businesses rely on cloud-based operations, their data needs will be managed in more centralized ways. For the technology giants in charge of maintaining these centralized data operations, energy efficiency is already becoming crucial.

    Companies from Google to Amazon are becoming increasingly sustainable, and there is little reason to doubt that this trend will stop anytime soon. Consuming less energy has become part of their corporate social responsibility efforts, so we can expect to see further increased energy efficiency in the near future.

    None of that may enter your mind when you look for an answer on the perfect way to boil pasta or an Excel template for your accounting report. Still, it's worth mentioning that even a seemingly mindless activity like a Google search has energy implications that reach much further than you might think. In fact, the lessons learned by these technology giants may just lead to a closer consideration of your own energy needs and costs.

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    Posted: November 28, 2017