10-16-12 | Blog Post

How the Cloud is Changing the Data Center’s Bad Reputation for Energy Inefficiency

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A few weeks ago, a New York Time’s article, the first in a series about cloud computing, The Cloud Factories: Power, Pollution and the Internet, (initially titled Data Centers Waste Vast Amounts of Energy, Belying Industry Image), revealed findings from a yearlong study on data centers conducted by the media company and consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Although there is valid reason to turn attention to these big technology hubs with the advance of the information age, I’d like to address a few points (blockquotes below) the article made:

User Demand & Data Center Management

Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner…On average, they [data centers] were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations.

According to VMware.com, “virtualization lets you run multiple virtual machines on a single physical machine, with each virtual machine sharing the resources of that one physical computer across multiple environments. Different virtual machines can run different operating systems and multiple applications on the same physical computer.” This means more can get done with less – resulting in serious energy savings (see Switching to the Cloud below, and the infographic for specifics on how much you can save on CO2 emissions per year when you switch from physical servers to the cloud).

Dan Wood’s article on Forbes.com, Why the New York Times Story ‘Power, Pollution, and the Internet’ is a Sloppy Failure, points out how virtualization and the cloud can significantly improve power usage. Another response, Data Centers As Power Hogs – Will Green Issues Impact High Frequency Trading? from Forbes.com by Tom Groenfeldt argues that while the NYTimes article focuses on user behavior as the driving force behind data center use and energy waste, “poor data center management” is actually to blame.

The NYTimes article does address this issue, by stating:

Some analysts warn that as the amount of data and energy use continue to rise, companies that do not alter their practices could eventually face a shake-up in an industry that has been prone to major upheavals, including the bursting of the first Internet bubble in the late 1990s.

“It’s just not sustainable,” said Mark Bramfitt, a former utility executive who now consults for the power and information technology industries. “They’re going to hit a brick wall.”

Upgrading technology and some smart planning can help avoid energy waste and allow data center operators to get the most use out of their resources as possible.

Switching to the Cloud

Cloud Computing Energy Savings
Cloud Computing Energy Savings

We’ve done some of our own calculations on exactly how much power consumption savings can be realized by switching from physical servers to cloud computing. I created the infographic to the left to help people visualize the following numbers.

If you compare the use of 26 physical servers/network running at 300 watts/server, with 100% uptime, PUE 1.8, and 1.58 lbs CO2/kwhr, you will be emitting 210,269 lbs of CO2 per year.

Switching to the cloud requires only two physical servers, network and SAN, and has a capacity of 35 servers. With the same uptime, PUE and rate of CO2/kwhr, the total CO2 lbs per year clocks in at just 27,903. That’s a savings of 182,366 lbs of CO2 emissions per year.

Diesel Generators

To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust.

With proper design and investment in dual utility power feeds from diverse routes, a data center may rarely need to turn on a generator at all. Redundant power feeds can ensure if one is not working, automatic failover guarantees the other power source will kick in. There’s little to no need for a data center to use generators aside from annual testing and emergency situations.


Guidelines for Energy Management
Guidelines for Energy Management

The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has teamed up to promote energy efficiency for all types of commercial buildings, including data centers. While a typical commercial building’s annual budget for power and energy expenses totals 30 percent, a data center can easily put 70-80 percent of its budget into cooling, heating and operations.

Online Tech is the first data center operator in Michigan to earn the EPA’S ENERGY STAR certification, which signifies that our Mid-Michigan data center performs in the top 25 percent of similar facilities nationwide for energy efficiency. Read more in our press release, Online Tech Earns EPA’s ENERGY STAR Certification for Superior Energy Efficiency.

Find out more about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use by reading The ENERGY STAR for Buildings & Manufacturing Plants.

If you want to get serious about revamping your commercial building’s energy use, the EPA also maps out a high-level overview of a seven-step plan to get you there, with their Guidelines for Energy Management.

Information Age vs. Industrial

The inefficient use of power is largely driven by a symbiotic relationship between users who demand an instantaneous response to the click of a mouse and companies that put their business at risk if they fail to meet that expectation.

It’s true, the migration from traditional storefronts to online does translate to the need for high availability; meaning websites are always on and always able to process or transmit an order or request to a company. In order to meet consumer demand and make companies more money, web servers have to be available at all times, and data centers need to support that level of availability.

But if you look at the bigger picture, you’ll see that a struggling economy and cultural shift to the information age from the previous industrial era necessitates more and more data centers and subsequent energy use. The even bigger picture might parallel past inefficient energy consumption of large industrial machines in a number of outdated industries to the adoption of technology and data center energy usage. Then factor in a vast reduction in the print industry and, although I’m only guessing, you’ll likely find that the numbers come out in favor of the information age. Finding a way to streamline and stay efficient while accepting the shift to the information age could be the answer to both staying competitive and saving energy.

Is It Worth It?
Another response to the related Room for Debate series, Information’s Environmental Cost, written by Jonathon Koomey compares the benefits to the concerns of energy use. He claims “the modest amount of electricity used by IT is well worth it, and the concern is overblown,” citing the fact that data centers only use about 1.3 percent of all electricity consumed worldwide in 2010.

He also argues that mobile sensing and computing, and their efficiency benefits, would not have been possible without data centers or the Internet, and that the evolving efficiency of IT is well worth the amount of energy use expended to support it.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if this article was a ploy to create controversy and stimulate conversation, but much of its reporting misleads readers with a biased view and only weak arguments to support it. Although the newspaper did conduct their own study, the results and article appear to be written in speculation with little research from within the evolving industry.

Despite being written as part of a cloud computing series, little has been focused on virtualization. Get informed on cloud computing with our Cloud Computing Articles, Four Cloud Computing Terms You Need To Know, and Five Cloud Computing Myths.

Find out more about Online Tech’s Michigan data centers.

The Cloud Factories: Power, Pollution and the Internet
Navigating Energy Management: A Roadmap for Business (PDF)
NYTimes’ Jonathan Koomey’s Study of Data Center Electricity Use in 2010
Benefits Outweigh the Concerns
Carbon Dioxide Emissions Calculator

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