Despite the tremendous gains the enterprise has made in reducing power consumption in the last few years, energy will remain one of the leading operational costs going forward. But since, admittedly, the data center was not a very efficient creation to begin with, it is fair to say that the easy work has been done, and that advances in efficiency from here on in will come at greater up-front costs and produce steadily diminishing returns on the back-end.
It is no wonder then that the industry as a whole is turning toward ever more exotic solutions when it comes to trimming the energy bill. In fact, many organizations are leveraging carbon offsets and other forms of energy credits to simply buy their way to carbon neutrality.
Cloud provider Digital Realty, for example, recently launched a program that awards free renewable energy credits for a year to anyone who leases space from its global data footprint. To date, most providers offer higher-than-normal rates for clients who want to burnish their green credentials, but Digital Realty is taking the concept mainstream by offering free credits up front. The hope is that the value of the credits will make itself plain within the year so that clients will continue to purchase them in subsequent years, ultimately lowering the carbon footprint of the data industry as a whole.
Critics of these kinds of carbon swaps are not hard to find. The biggest knock is that the organizations buying them are merely paying to support someone else’s energy efficiency while doing nothing to improve their own. As well, reducing fossil fuel consumption is said to place a drag on the economy and increase joblessness in key industries. But as Imperial College in London noted in a recent study, carbon offsets do much more to improve the environment and boost the economy, with benefits ranging from reduced health care costs to bolstering employment in environmentally friendly industries and increasing investment in critical infrastructure. On average, the report states, every metric ton of carbon saved drives about $664 in economic activity.
Even among proponents of offsets and other efficiency measures, there is a good deal of controversy when it comes to identifying the proper course of action. The cloud, for instance, has long been touted as an energy saver, except by people who point to the source of energy being used to power cloud facilities. Companies that have instituted a range of energy-sipping technologies on-premises are not doing anyone any favors by porting loads to cloud centers powered by fossil fuel, the argument goes.
But this misses the point, says tech consultant Bob Warfield. When it comes to delivering data value to the largest number of users, the cloud wins hands down, particularly when the load is carried on multitenant SaaS infrastructure. It isn’t unheard of, in fact, to enable 1,000 or more users in the cloud using the same footprint that serves one person in the data center. That is a 1,000 percent increase in efficiency no matter how the energy is sourced, delivered and consumed by the data center. You would need an entirely carbon-neutral facility – real carbon neutrality, not offsets – to produce a net loss in efficiency by converting to the cloud.
But the fact remains that not all workloads will shift onto the cloud – at least not any time soon. That means the enterprise will remain under the gun to clean up its own shop for the foreseeable future. After all, the data industry has been flagged as the largest consumer of electricity on the planet, so any perceived wavering in the commitment to improve that record is not likely to go over well with the public. Fortunately, a range of solutions is still available for deployment, from improving power generation and handling to full modular infrastructure, that should produce a steady flow of headlines.
Nevertheless, energy efficiency will remain a moving target as each new solution produces critics who say it is ineffective or an illusion or both. But that should not stop the data center industry from trying.
And in the end, the proof will be on the energy bill: If you are paying less today than you were last year, you’re probably doing something right.
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.