Say this about the data center industry and climate change: There is no shortage of headlines touting advanced facility and infrastructure designs aimed at producing cleaner data services.
But are these developments representative of the industry as a whole? And if not, how long will it be before the world at large recognizes that the showcase facilities coming online are only the dressing on what are still some very dirty windows?
The latest advance in clean data is the new EcoDataCenter going up in Falun, Sweden, which is said to be so efficient that it actually produces a “climate-positive” effect on energy consumption. This is accomplished mainly by diverting waste heat into the local community where it can be used to offset energy consumption in one of the cooler climates around the globe. On the front end, the facility draws power from a grid that is sourced primarily from renewables like solar, water and wind, and the bio-energy that it does consume is part of the local utility’s own cogeneration plant that funnels waste heat to nearby communities as well. The plant was designed in conjunction with Schneider Electric and is said to offer 100 percent uptime as well as a Tier IV safety rating, the highest in Europe.
This idea of converting waste heat into usable energy is not new of course, but only lately has the concept moved beyond collocated office space into the community at large. Apple’s planned facility in Denmark is slated to funnel excess heat to local residences, with source energy coming primarily from wind. Apple isn’t calling it climate-positive, but it still ranks as one of the most environmentally friendly data centers in the world.
These are only a few examples of the many green data centers that are popping up around the world, backed by Apple, Google, Amazon and other hyperscale entities. At the moment, however, they still provide only a small fraction of the worldwide data load, and it is hard to gauge what their overall impact will be as Big Data and the Internet of Things drives up traffic.
But a more pertinent question is whether the broader IT industry will demand green IT as the cloud era unfolds and the people consuming data resources have less at stake in the design and provisioning of infrastructure. Recent studies suggest that if the data industry is to become greener, the pressure won’t come from the demand side. According to Green House Data, only 7 percent of respondents to a recent survey listed renewable energy and overall energy consumption as primary factors in selecting a cloud service provider. Only 3 percent preferred a facility with a low Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE). In this light, it is reasonable to expect providers to embrace systems and facilities designs that produce lower operating expenses and other tangible benefits, but not when the ROI produces higher rates than competitors.
But the cloud industry is nothing if not innovative, and it is very likely that before too long we will see entirely new classes of data infrastructure that will deliver not only lower energy costs but improved data performance as well. A case in point is startup Vapor I/O, which recently emerged from stealth with what it calls a “hyper-collapsed” data infrastructure that puts a new spin on current modular designs. Enterprise Technology describes the Vapor Chamber as a micro-module that replaces standard hot/cold aisle with a chamber-like design that can deliver substantial computing power while drawing about 150kW of power per chamber. The system is still under development, but the company says it is targeting a PUE of 1.1, which is as near to perfect efficiency (1.0) as the standard allows. At the same time, Vapor I/O has delivered its Open Data Center Runtime Environment to Facebook’s Open Compute Project, while the broader Core Operating Runtime Environment (CORE) is aimed at open and legacy data environments to enable real-time, app-driven scale and power consumption.
When it comes to data center power consumption, there will never be an infrastructure that is “green enough.” If the Swedish project starts a trend toward climate-positive data operations, then the race will be on to improve energy returns and the world community will turn a jaundiced eye toward those considered to be laggards.
But real progress will only come about when the industry as a whole embraces the concept of green IT, even if it comes at the expense of maximum profitability. And ultimately, responsibility for data infrastructure falls on the consumer, who must come to understand that connectivity comes at a cost, both monetary and environmental, and that there is a difference between utilizing infrastructure for productive purposes and just getting a laugh out of funny cat videos.
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.