Jeff Rothschild's machines at Facebook had a problem he knew he had to solve immediately. They were about to melt.
The company had been packing a 40-by-60-foot rental space in Santa Clara, California, with racks of computer servers that were needed to store and process information from members' accounts. The electricity pouring into the computers was overheating crucial components.
Thinking fast, Rothschild, the company's engineering chief, took some employees on an expedition to buy every fan they could find - "We cleaned out all of the Walgreens in the area," he said - to blast cool air at the equipment and prevent the website from going down.
That was in early 2006, when Facebook had 10 million users and the one main server site.
Today, the information generated by nearly 1 billion people requires outsize versions of these facilities, called data centres, with rows and rows of servers spread over hundreds of thousands of square feet, and all with industrial cooling systems.
They are a mere fraction of the tens of thousands of data centres that now exist to support the overall explosion of digital information.
Stupendous amounts of data are set in motion each day as, with an innocuous click or tap, people download movies on iTunes, check credit card balances on Visa's website, send Yahoo email with files attached, buy products on Amazon, post on Twitter or read newspapers online.
A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.
Most data centres, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centres can waste 90% or more of the electricity they pull off the grid.
To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centres has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations.
Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times.
Data centers in the US account for one-quarter to one-third of that load.