I’ve pointed out many times over the years that everyone has their own perception of green. To a coal plant operator, a 20 percent reduction in emissions is cause for celebration, while the environmentalist still frets over the 80 percent still coming out of the stack.
So it is understandable that the data center industry – arguably the top energy consumer on the planet – is both the hero and the villain when it comes to greening up the world’s digital infrastructure. And in time-honored tradition, the biggest targets are always first on the hit list, which in this case would be the hyperscale providers like Google, Facebook and Amazon.
But as Data Center Dynamics’ Peter Judge points out, criticism of the web-scale providers actually misses the mark when it comes to environmental friendliness because their facilities, while massive, are also among the most efficient on the planet. According to a recent breakdown from the National Resources Defense Council, hyperscale infrastructure consumes about 5 percent of total data center energy draw, and is probably responsible for even less of the emissions due to its state-of-the-art power capabilities. The largest consumers of data center power are the small-to-mid-sized facilities, which account for about half of total consumption. Large enterprises take up another quarter or so, followed by the colocation industry, which draws another 20 percent.
This is the primary reason data consolidation has garnered such support in recent years. At the outset, individual enterprises sought to streamline their disparate architectures to take advantage of economies of scale. But as the cloud era unfolds, entire industries have seen the benefit of moving infrastructure off-premises and into third-party facilities. IDC estimates that the number of data centers worldwide will peak at about 8.6 million in 2017, but the amount of square footage given to data infrastructure will continue to rise throughout the decade.
The chief characteristic of hyperscale infrastructure, however, is standardization, and this can be both a help and a hindrance when it comes to energy efficiency, says Enterprise Tech’s Timothy Prickett Morgan. On the plus side, standardized hardware can be easily configured and integrated into the overall environment and can produce some very impressive power consumption outcomes. On the downside, standard architectures are not very customizable, meaning that they do not necessarily produce the optimal environment, energy or otherwise, for the application at hand.
Open technologies can help in this regard, says HGST’s Mario Blandini, and also help to drive costs down so large and even mid-sized organizations can take advantage of scale-out infrastructure without the massive bulk purchases that hyperscale providers enjoy. In storage, for example, open source platforms like Red Hat Storage Server, OpenStack Object Storage, GlusterFS and Intank Ceph Enterprise are pushing software-defined storage architectures from the cloud to the enterprise. At the same time, modular infrastructure is fostering a building-block-style of hardware provisioning while optimized Ethernet and other technologies are fine-tuning these platforms for scale-out storage operations.
Energy efficiency and scale do not go hand-in-hand by accident. The sheer size of scale-out infrastructure demands that energy consumption be kept to a minimum on the per-unit level to prevent operating costs from spinning completely out of control. So as the industry consolidates around hyperscale infrastructure, expect to see the performance/watt metrics improve.
Unfortunately, the overall energy draw will continue to rise unless and until the data-using population decides that it simply cannot consume any more.
Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.