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Data Centers and Energy Efficiency

A recent New York Times article by James Glanz, “The Cloud Factories: Power, Pollution and the Internet” has caused an uproar in the data center community.  According to the piece, data centers are energy hogs that have polluted the environment for decades without any hesitation or innovation.  The article takes a one-sided view on data centers using outdated anecdotes and statistics to support its theory.  Is there another, more balanced perspective?

To be fair, Glanz raises valid points that some data centers consume enough energy to power mid-size towns and that the industry could do a better job at adopting greener efficiencies.  In 2007, industry awareness increased and a call to action was launched.  A closer look at data center innovations of the last five years will show dramatic improvements in energy efficiency at many of the larger facilities. As Rich Miller mentioned, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft have overhauled their electrical and mechanical systems over the last few years. Techniques include using fresh air instead of power-hungry refrigerant based chillers to cool servers and running facilities at warmer temperatures. In addition, new design schemes for modular data centers have emerged offering highly efficient designs.  Companies also are experimenting with renewable energy as a power source. Apple is committed to on-site solar energy and landfill-powered fuel cells, while Fujitsu derives 50% of power for its Sunnyvale data center from hydrogen.

Perhaps it is time to shift from the one dimensional (energy consumption) view of the data center and employ a different lens, i.e., one that assesses the benefit of a watt consumed.  Let’s consider two hypothetical data centers, each consuming 10MW, having the same PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness), and the same carbon footprint.  One is loaded with servers supporting no applications merely idling and consuming power.  The other data center supports smart grid applications in a virtualized environment pushing CPUs to 80% utilization and reducing the carbon footprint of the national grid by 30%.  The New York Times article would punish both facilities for their high energy consumption while only one exhibits a net negative impact on the environment.  The other, while consuming energy, delivers an ecological benefit many thousands of times greater.  Current metrics do not recognize or communicate this difference because IT benefits are hard to quantify and vary by the industry supported.  But it can be done and history is on our side.  The productivity paradox of 1980s and 1990s failed to identify the benefit of IT investments in a production environment.  Traditional productivity metrics focused on number of units manufactured ignoring the actual IT value of improved quality, process visibility, and customer satisfaction.   When measured properly, the value produced by IT investments became very clear revealing new methods to be more efficient.

Based on a more complete picture, the future is looking bright for data centers, both in terms of efficiency and innovation. For our part, Verizon Terremark is continuing to invest in our data center infrastructure to decrease energy consumption while providing high levels of availability, connectivity and security for our customers.  Driving energy requirements down, we simultaneously explore methods to measure and report the additional dimension of energy performance revealing new ways to be more efficient and provide a more balanced operational assessment across our footprint.

Ben Stewart
Ben Stewart

Senior Vice President, Facility Engineering


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