Data Centers Support the Cloud—But Waste 90 Percent of Their Energy in the Process

By Sophie Bushwick | September 24, 2012 1:45 pm

data center

Once I’ve typed in a message, shared a video, or uploaded a photo to a social media website like Facebook or Twitter, I tend to forget about it. I assume that if I check back days or even weeks later, the status update or tweet will still be there, safely stored…somewhere. That “somewhere” is in one of tens of thousands of data centers, each filled with many, many servers that physically preserve the vast quantity of information flowing over the internet every day. But while it’s easy to forget about data centers, they are having a huge impact on our energy grid—and our environment.

The New York Times has kicked off a series of articles about the physical constructions on which “the cloud” is built with a piece by James Glanz. As Glanz writes, data centers not only consume a huge amount of energy, they also waste about 90 percent of what they use by running the facilities on full throttle at all times.

Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load, the estimates show.

“It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”

Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.

And to make sure that not even a power failure can take the system offline, data centers also use diesel-spewing generators, which often violate clean air regulations, with the further backups of energy-storing flywheels or lead-acid batteries. By over-insuring that they stay online and meet consumer demand, these centers are also wasting energy and polluting the environment. For more information, check out the full article at the New York Times website.

But while this comprehensive coverage breaks through the secrecy around data centers to reveal their flaws, the industry is already trying to make these centers more efficient. CNET’s Michelle Meyers assembled a few different takes on the Times article. Her piece points out the changes that internet companies are making to data centers, such as revamping the way power is distributed to each server and cooling the computers with air rather than refrigerants.

Image courtesy of Route79 / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Chris M

    That article was a terrible piece of journalism. It’s been ridiculed a lot by techies, but there is no reason to post ridicule. A better response by Urs Hölzle can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/09/23/informations-environmental-cost/cloud-computing-can-use-energy-efficiently

  • Brian Too
  • Brian Too

    On reading the original NYT article, I think they have a point. It’s a bit flawed because for at least 5 years now, data centre construction has been focusing on energy efficiency and there has been lots of good work done in that area.

    However the energy efficiency initiatives often involve:

    1). Virtualization (multiple logical systems running on a single physical system);
    2). Running the data centre at higher than traditional temperatures, strict air flow control, novel cooling systems, DC power, and so forth;
    3). Using lower power server hardware, often by changing the CPU’s, changing the power supplies, etc.

    So what is missing? Decommissioning is what’s missing. A system that ought to be decommissioned often falls into a netherworld of responsibility or priority. Either no one wants to be the one to make that decision, or the priorities are such that working on decommissioning old systems gets continually squeezed out by working on new or ongoing systems.

    It is also true that the key metric for a Data Centre Manager is their uptime. They live and die by that number. If a system is down and it shouldn’t be, no matter how well intentioned, the Data Centre looks bad. The metrics for power efficiency are much farther down the importance scale.

    Finally, in the Internet age, slow response is also a no-no. Imagine a smartphone client clicks on an icon and nothing happens for a minute. They may well choose another service rather than wait.

    Now imagine that all that happened, was the hosting server was sleeping and had to wake up. The impatient world of modern communcations rarely lets this happen without (negative) comment. As a result most servers have all their power saving functions disabled. This allows instant response when called upon, but removes the opportunity to save power under low load conditions.

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