Power Problems Strike Again by Peter Judge
Amazon’s recent outage (on the East Coast of the US) underlined yet again how critical data center power is.
At the time of writing, I don’t know the cause of this outage, but Amazon has previously had a couple of failures at its northern Virginia data centre, which serves the US Eastern region, at least some of which were due to power outages.
The most publicised failure was in April 2011, and two which were definitely to do with electricity supply were a failure caused by a lightning strike in Ireland in August 2011, and one where a car struck a utility pole in Northern Virginia, precipitating a power outage.
Don’t aggregate and misinterpret these to prove “cloud is not ready” or “AWS is unreliable”, though! Other services, including your own internal data centers, suffer similar issues. And indeed, the lightning strike in Ireland itself also brought down some Microsoft cloud services.
The point to note is that electricity supply networks are fragile, and there are limits to how reliable they can be made in times where energy itself becomes increasingly expensive.
That’s why we’ve recently seen both Microsoft and HP propose moving data centres to the sources of renewable energy.
That’s an idea which doesn’t just apply to renewable energy sources, however. There has been discussion about building data centres at the Marcellus shale gas field in New York state, where the controversial process of fracking is set to produce a vast quantity of natural gas.
The point is that gas production is limited by the amount that can be pumped away and used in the existing infrastructure. So why not build data centers on top of the gas production, burn it there to make electricity, and ship the bits elsewhere instead?
The obvious drawback is that you have to have network connections to move the data - and most shale gas sites are in remote locations (Marcellus is a bit of an exception there). Still, it might well be that fibre capacity to the shale site is easier to put in than gas pipes from the site.
The other drawback is that there is less likely to be a local population that can make good use of the excess heat provided in both the generation process and the data center. Most remote shale locations don’t have a lot of people round them wanting free hot water for room heating.
And then of course, this is by no means “clean power”, as it generates greenhouse gases. The positive spin is that the data centers would be using that power as efficiently as possible, with low losses in transmission.
All this is once again part of a global picture where power provision, data center design and IT usage are all changing and are rarely in phase. Right now, demand for processing power in data centers is increasing, while energy supplies are tight, and the physical architecture of most data centers is designed for a different situation ten years ago.
There are limits to what can be done in this situation, but it needs to be monitored. ASHRAE has a new book out, Datacom Equipment Power Trends and Cooling Applications, which promises to help.
That’s no consolation to Amazon, or any users who are ever hit by power problems.