Pollution Campaigns Pushes Data Center math outside the building by Peter Judge
Running a data center is - I imagine - all about doing math. Calculating the cost per MIP of the hardware, the cost of the energy, the likely failure rates, the replacement schedule... I’ve never done that job, but from all I hear, there are a lot of sums, all directed at ensuring the center performs well, delivers to budget, and meets all sorts of changing regulations.
Quite how many sums a data center manager has to do came home to me in an article I read recently, about back-up power pollution at data centers in Quincy, Washington. The sums don’t just cover what happens inside the center. It seems they spill out into the outside world.
Quincy has several data centers, run by firms including Microsoft, Yahoo, Dell, Sabey and Vantage Data Centers all lured there by the availability of cheap power at a couple of cents per kilowatt, which is generated by hydroelectric dams.
If you look at the town on Google Maps, you will see a small rural town. It’s got some large data center sheds, but search for the big names and you find the map is out of date. According to Google, Yahoo Way, where the Internet giant has its new efficient style data center, is a green field.
The data center people to use rural metaphors. Yahoo says its data center is designed like a “chicken coop”, and Microsoft describes its facility as like a “tractor shed”. But the reality is, this is a major and very fast development - helped in large part by a tax break which had a closing date of July 2011.
More than 100,000 square feet of data centre space has been built in short order, in a town with only 7000 people.
These big changes have led to concern amongst residents, who have focused on the fact that all these data centres have back-up power, all provided by diesel generators. Residents were concerned that the emissions from the generators would be a health risk. In particular, former mayor Polly Martin has been kicking up a stink according to the Seattle Times.
Now, for most data centers, the emissions of the back-up diesel generator could be pretty much ignored. These generators are normally idle - the clue is in the word “back-up” - and get fired up occasionally to test them. Average use is a couple of hours per month, if you have reliable power, and Quincy is very proud of its 99.9% reliable supply.
But doesn’t it all add up to something big? Martin argues that the new data centers have a total of 141 generators, so the total emissions from testing, and occasional requirements for actual use, will generate a significant amount of particulates, and she says Washington State is lenient on air filtering.
Is it a problem? Possibly, but it’s definitely a math exercise. The reports don’t give the details, but 141 generators at two hours per month would add up to about ten hours per day.
Washington’s Department of Ecology has done calculations, and held consultations. The result is an estimate of 10 extra cancer deaths per million people for the Microsoft center, and the State has capped the total allowable emissions at a level estimated to cause 100 cancer deaths per million.
The unit combines two scary words (cancer, death) with one incomprehensible one. Deaths per million doesn’t mean much in a tiny town. And you have to remember that figure is over 70 years. It is as near zero as makes no odds - especially when compared with other risks, or other areas.
By a statistical accident, Quincy has a quoted murder rate of 16.7 per 100,000 (or to put it in the same units, 167 per million). This is a statistical blip since the tiny town had one murder in 2009.
In the last 35 years, only 9 people have died in car accidents; unfortunately this gives it a fatality rate of 188 per 100,000 (the population must have been smaller in the past). That’s 1880 per million over the 35 years, or 3700 over the 70 years the cancer figures use.
Compared with other areas, the town has good measured air quality, with levels of particulates well below the state average (admittedly the figures only extend till 2009, before the big expansion).
It looks like the Quincy protests pushed data center math outside the building, and the figures worked out in its favor.