The non-utopian side of data centers by Doug Mohney
Anyone with a toe into the data center field is abuzz today with a set of New York Times articles on "The Cloud Factories." I suspect the series will have more near-term and long-term effects than the past two years of Greenpeace drive-bys, but let's take it with a grain of salt.
"Data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid" asserts the lead article, due to the fact that data centers servers run on a 24x7x365 basis. We've also got the evils of diesel generators, a quote from a representative of the Electric Power Research Institute that having UPS backup of batteries and flywheels “is too many insurance policies,” and a culture of secrecy surrounding data center operations.
It all sounds so, so... sinister, so 1%. Occupy Server Farm, anyone?
Typical server utilization in data centers is running from 6 to 12 percent, depending on who's numbers you use -- McKinsey & Company and Gartner both contributed information to the article. Add in cooling, backup power, and power distribution to get horrible stats on energy waste and consumption.
Reading between the lines, conservative IT mindsets are part of the cause of power wastage. Data centers are overbuilt so they don't get caught short on compute cycles, cooling, and backup power. Cutting capacity is scary, because if you don't have the servers, you don't have the business.
Diesel generators, noisy, air polluting monsters necessary to stay on line and charge batteries in case of a power failure, appear to be one of the biggest villains in the series. A laundry list of major data center operators providers -- Amazon, Equinix, NTT America, Qwest, Savvis, VeriSign -- have been cited for environmental violations in operating generators.
And then there's Microsoft, called out because of its diesel operations in Silicon Valley and Quinsy, Washington. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District listed Microsoft's Santa Clara data center as one of the largest stationary diesel polluters in the area in 2008 and 2009, along with a rock quarry and diesel-dependent Alcatraz Island. The software giant's data center in Quinsy has permits for 37 diesel generators. It is also located next to an elementary school, triggering a local movement against the devices.
I'm wondering if the New York Times series will trigger a wave of examinations at the executive level. Regardless of the pollution factor, waste is waste. If companies can reduce operational expenses without compromising data center resources, it's a no brainer. But organizations need to be able to honestly measure and assess what their computing needs are and how far they can go in rightsizing to a proper solution.