By Jonathan Marshall
Data centers – warehouses of computer servers that process everything from email to Amazon orders – consume the power output of about 30 nuclear plants but waste up to 90 percent of their energy, according to a recent expose in the New York Times that has the IT industry buzzing with a mixture of rage and shame.
The article stimulated many defensive responses, but it was less a critique of IT ineptitude than of providers who meet customer demands for instantaneous, 24/7 services through brute-force use of redundant servers, storage devices and power supplies, all of which gobble up power.
In any case, assigning blame seems less important than the bigger lesson articulated by Mark Bramfitt, a former PG&E energy efficiency expert who now consults with information technology companies. “It’s just not sustainable,” he told the newspaper. “They’re going to hit a brick wall.”
Already data centers in the United States consume about 2 percent of all electricity used in this country, according to Stanford University’s Jonathan Koomey. That share is likely to grow as everything around us goes digital, from books and movies to smart appliances.
Lots of potential for energy savings
The good news is there’s lot of room to improve efficiency. Nearly half the power load at typical data centers comes from chillers, fans, backup power supplies and lighting. There are plenty of efficient solutions available. Progressive utilities like PG&E encourage customers to adopt them by offering advice and financial incentives.
But the biggest share of energy is consumed by servers, which far too often sit idle while drawing current. Proven techniques like virtualization—which allows multiple applications to run on one server—can dramatically improve efficiency. As time goes on, manufacturers are increasing their use of lower-power chips and storage devices to reduce electricity use. Improved controls and management practices also offer large opportunities to reduce wasted energy.
The chance to dramatically cut large electric bills is helping motivate big data center owners to invest heavily in such measures.
San Jose-based Brocade saved $1.5 million a year by consolidating its datacenters into one ultra-efficient facility in 2011. As icing on the cake, it also earned a $2.1 million in energy efficiency incentives from PG&E.
And Redwood City-based Informatica, a data integration company, said this year it slashed energy use at its data center by 73 percent – a reduction of about 12.5 million kilowatt-hours annually – by virtualizing its servers and improving airflow management.
But for every Informatica or Brocade there are thousands of smaller businesses with inefficient data closets or computer racks, says Bill Dunckel, energy solutions manager at PG&E. He spoke this summer about that huge unaddressed market at the Data Center Dynamics conference in San Francisco.
“IT companies need to get down to the little guys and sell solutions for data closets,” Dunckel maintains. “The goal is to get vendors to push plug-and-play, energy-efficient solutions.”
Cloud offers efficiency, flexibility
Although it’s no panacea, an increasingly appealing alternative for many smaller companies is to shift their computing to the “cloud,” he said. Companies like Amazon and AT&T maintain vast, and potentially very efficient, server warehouses that can provide computing and storage services for a fraction of the cost of hosting them in-house.
They also offer great flexibility. “I don’t need to manage my own installation, and if I’m not satisfied I can find another provider,” Dunckel added.
Wired magazine’s Robert McMillan commented in the wake of the New York Times story, “It’s an open question whether, five years from now, mainstream America will take advantage of these new data-center techniques by simply moving to the cloud — and buying computer power from companies like Google or Amazon — or whether the secrets of Silicon Valley will trickle out to the rest of the world one engineer at a time.”
The answer to that question should be, don’t wait five years to make a choice. Efficient cloud services are available today. So are plenty of consultants who can help IT departments boost efficiency and cut costs in their data closets and server racks.
PG&E is here to help as well. The utility provides technical training, case studies of successful projects, financial incentives, testing of new approaches through emerging technology projects, and collaboration with national organizations to help the industry develop new codes and standards to promote efficiency.
Email Jonathan Marshall at email@example.com.