Microsoft More of a Seafoam Green than a Forest

Kachina Shaw

There's no hotter trend than being an "environmentalist" or "going green," or describing yourself that way, at the very least. That's as true for IT groups as for anyone, with most initial effort being focused on the data center, the obvious energy glutton, though one that hasn't been tackled as low-hanging fruit for both energy and cost savings with much vigor -- until the trendiness hit.


But if that's a ball that's been dropped, all the blame can't be laid directly at IT's feet. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the energy consumption of a data center goes to power the computers. The rest keeps them cool. One stat in this piece says a 1-megawatt data center will pay $17 million for electricity over 10 years, according to Neil Rasmussen, CTO for APC. Those kinds of numbers mean that the data center electric bill -- for which IT may be only minimally (or not at all) responsible -- is usually attacked first, sometimes at the time of a facility move or redesign.


Enjoy it while it lasts. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that when the light is shined on just how much powering the data center is costing per month, more of that total is going to be put on IT's bill.


Which brings us to the planning behind a new Microsoft data center project in San Antonio. Companies are taking every opportunity, from press releases to puff pieces, to make available information about their green initiatives. Heck, when the most feel-good global trend is available even to corporate giants, it's probably time to invest in a PR firm or two.


When the San Antonio facility begins operations next summer, it will have a cooling system that uses non-potable water. The savings created are multi-faceted: wind-generated power ("green") runs the water treatment plant, and less of that power will be needed for the water going into the cooling system, since it won't be processed as fully, according to a fawning piece in Good thing, too, since the 500,000-square-foot building will hold "tens of thousands of servers." And that's small, compared to another new facility being built in Quincy, Washington. This one's three times the size; the environmentally friendly practices Microsoft chooses to talk about with this one are hydroelectric plant powering and biodiesel fuel for vehicles (though that was chosen more for health reasons in an enclosed area than for the environment). And those are just two out of hundreds of Microsoft data centers.


It is true that, even when the individual or corporation blows carbon up our behinds, if the individual or corporation is big and glitzy enough, their well-publicized green efforts will prompt others to follow suit. That's the reasoning behind Microsoft's gift of half a million for university research on "environmentally sensitive computing." Is that a good thing? Of course it is. Data center power consumption has doubled since 2000. It'll double again in the next five years.


But a drop in the bucket is just a drop in the bucket in the big picture of Microsoft's total environmental impact and the even bigger picture of the impact of the tech industry as a whole.

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