Earth Day in the Data Center

Julius Neudorfer

Slide Show

Do IT People Really Care About Green IT?

Study finds that IT organizations still consider power consumption secondary to performance.

As our world becomes ever more data-centric, the data center and the energy it uses become a focal point of criticism for groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, as well as many others.

Of course, it is easy to point to a big building full of servers that turn megawatts of energy into heat, and criticize it as the scourge of the Earth and the root of all evil. Yet many of those members and supporters of those same groups (if not in fact, but in spirit) want to watch TV and movies on their iPads, phones and computers. Moreover, they also want to post their protests about data center energy usage, as well as what they ate for breakfast, on their favorite social media site.

They constantly worry that they are not up-to-date-correction-up to the 'micromoment' on the latest tweet about their most beloved fashion, music or sports icon. (Note, I am officially coining the term 'micromoment," since 'date' by definition implies a calendar.)

The general public just can't get enough of technology and expects and presumes that the cloud, the Internet, as well as their smartphone should operate in some magical place in the sky. In addition, that it should all not require any significant energy to deliver anything, anytime and anywhere. It is also expected that they are a presumed entitlement, like air and water.

On Earth Day, the words "green," "sustainability" and "efficiency" are chanted repeatedly. And in the data center industry, we also have come to worship and covet power usage effectiveness (PUE), and perhaps are beginning to worry about water usage effectiveness (WUE) and carbon usage effectiveness (CUE). Clearly computing and digital performance have improved perhaps over a million fold in the last 50 years. In comparison, the data center's power and cooling infrastructure has improved only somewhat over the last five years.  

However, if we were to re-examine the big picture and look at 'instant' communications historically and holistically, it would seem that the analog communications technology of the last century was far more effective, even when we were using 'vacuum tubes' in the equipment. A 50,000-watt clear channel AM radio station could be received up to 500-1,000 miles away and could be heard by tens of millions of 'users' (they used to be call listeners). In comparison, two high-density server racks now can require 50,000 watts, and yet could not even begin to support a million users simultaneously. Moreover, even if they could, it would require many more network resources and far more energy to deliver the same content to a million users. Yet, many people prefer to listen to radio programs on their PC as streaming audio. How green is that?

While the Internet was credited for helping bring democracy and change to the Middle East earlier this year, during World War II and throughout the Cold War, radio propaganda (from both sides) was delivered very effectively via short-wave broadcasts (over thousands of miles) that were able to be received across all borders, and were not able to be blocked by government firewalls and filters.

If you examine the traditional methods of 'instantaneous communications' that dominated the majority of the 20th century-landline-based telephones, radio and broadcast television-the annualized total energy required to deliver content was very low compared to energy demands of digital multimedia communications. The advent of social media and the ability (and demand) for anyone with a digital camera to record endless hours of content on YouTube and other similar sites, have driven the need for data centers and the need for endlessly higher bandwidth networks to deliver the content (e.g., a 45-minute HD version of someone's cat coughing up a fur ball) and all the resultant emails with links to it for all to share. Of course, let's not forget the fact that even a $99 digital camera will allow you to take thousands of 5-10 megapixel photos and email them to anyone and everyone, all of which are stored and sent over the network.

I am not defending data centers that have less-than-optimal energy usage; clearly, there is a lot that can be done to improve them. Many in the industry have analyzed and reviewed Facebook's new Prineville, Ore., 'super efficient' data center  that was just competed in time to celebrate Earth Day. Perhaps it was also meant to represent Facebook's response to Greenpeace's criticisms. Nonetheless, Facebook should be applauded for sharing the details of its innovative efforts to improve efficiency via its Open Compute initiative. 

However, it is important to note that, in reality, what it is storing and serving should not just be classified as 'data," since it is far more than that. It begs the question of the underlying fundamental need of all those data centers that search, store and stream 'social content' ad-nauseam. 

So while the Internet has done many good things and allowed for unprecedented creativity and worldwide sharing of knowledge, presumably for the benefit of all mankind, let's look beyond the data center to the source, ourselves and our values and own actions, before we blame data centers as the energy menace.

The Bottom Line

So in case you think I am advocating going back to the pre-Internet 'Stone Age' of the prior century, I am only asking that you to use Earth Day to consider if the data center industry is the source of the problem or simply responding to the desires of the general public.

I will get off my digital soap box now (which is obviously hosted on a server located in a data center), and so while it is Earth Day today, lets all remember that it is our actions the other 364 days of the year that will mean more than what we speak of today.


Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 22, 2011 9:04 PM Winston Saunders Winston Saunders  says:
I love the comparison to AM radio! Of course, you have to remember the receiver power: I have a vintage 1940's Radio at home with several tubes that consumes ~ 100 Watts. Happy earth day! Reply
Apr 25, 2011 4:04 PM Julius Julius  says:
Hi Winston, Glad you liked the comparison. You are right about some of line powered radios that were built into cabinets using ~ 100 watts. However, many of the early tube radios were battery powered, and used separate A B and C dry batteries, which were expensive which used much less than 100 watts.. Moreover, of the "greenest" receivers (and most popular, since they were the cheapest) was the crystal radio (sometimes call the "cats whiskers") which used no power at all ! So maybe the answer to the energy crisis and global warming is to go "Back to the Future" Regards, Julius Reply
Feb 24, 2012 7:02 AM asadsardi asadsardi  says:
Server racks of the utmost premium quality can be equipped with multiple shelves, glide-mounted drawers, or keyboard shelves with ambidextrous mouse trays, etc. server racks Reply
Feb 24, 2012 7:02 AM asadsardi asadsardi  says:
Server racks of the utmost premium quality can be equipped with multiple shelves, glide-mounted drawers, or keyboard shelves with ambidextrous mouse trays, etc. server racks Reply

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