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Pressure is on to make data centers green

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Articles - June 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010


“Facebook, despite its tiff with Greenpeace, has made great strides. The entire move to Oregon is about having the ability to operate their overall infrastructure more efficiently,” says Rich Miller, editor of the trade website Data Center Knowledge. Facebook’s projected Power Usage Effectiveness, the EPA-adopted efficiency standard, is projected to be 1.15 — the best in the industry.

That record may not last long. “The data center industry has been working intensely over the past three years on improving energy efficiency of these facilities,” says Miller. “It’s been a broad-based effort and has required some change of thinking in the industry, partly because these companies never shared much information.”

But companies have recently started opening up about their data centers, and that openness has already spurred progress.

The free cooling principle that’s creating most of Facebook’s energy savings was first demonstrated on a large scale in 2008 by another Oregon data center owner: Intel, the nation’s largest purchaser of green power. In addition to its own facility, Intel makes chips for almost all data centers worldwide, says Don Atwood, head of a division called Data Center Forward Engineering and Strategy. The data centers in Oregon owned by Facebook, Amazon, and Google? “Intel would be in all of them,” he says.

Intel has goals for chip efficiency in each generation of processors, just like its famous goals for greater computing power, and last year it had a major breakthrough. Servers use almost as much energy when idle as when operating at capacity, but Intel designed a chip that can shut down parts of the server and power it back up automatically as needed. Intel also plans to publish a study this year showing that servers can run hotter than was believed, which would save energy used for cooling.

But the company making the most progress with data center efficiency is probably Google, which stands to lose the most from carbon pricing or regulation. “Google dwarfs everybody when it comes to energy use,” says Casey Harrell, an organizer with Greenpeace’s Cool IT campaign. “They’re trying very hard. They’re doing more on clean energy advocacy, trying to ramp down the cost of renewables. They’re saying, ‘We have a carbon problem. We can’t grow without increasing emissions.’”

Google is still tight-lipped about its data centers, but it has started talking more openly with the rest of the industry. Google hosted a summit last year on data center efficiency where it revealed, among other innovations, what one engineer called its “Manhattan Project.” Most data center owners build a redundant power supply to guard against outages. Google saves money and energy by equipping each server with a 12-volt battery instead.

“We believe we’re operating probably the most efficient data centers in the world,” says Joe Kava, director of data center operations at Google’s headquarters in the Bay Area. Kava says the company is constantly improving efficiency and although he wouldn’t talk in detail, he mentioned an experiment with a “proprietary chemistry” in The Dalles that will recycle water more efficiently. Google hopes to use 80% recycled water in all its data centers by the end of 2010.

There is an element of idealism in Google’s sustainability effort in addition to its obvious self-interest. Google.org, its nonprofit arm, is striving to make renewable energy cheaper than coal “in years, not decades” by investing in renewable energy projects, lobbying government and using Google products to “unlock information that enables innovation and raises awareness about the benefits of renewable energy.”

Reducing energy use in data centers is an imperative, but replacing coal would be a revolution.

Local officials celebrated the unexpected arrival of Facebook in Prineville in January. The criticism from Greenpeace came a short time later.
More than a third of large private data center owners in North America plan to expand this year, and many are expanding because they need more power, according to a survey by Digital Realty Trust, which builds and rents data centers.

It’s not just tech companies and Internet users who drive demand for data centers. Any business with lots of data could eventually need one. Accountants, financial firms, governments and universities are all major data center owners and renters.

“Eventually we’re going to see most of our stuff reside in the cloud and that’s going to drive demand for more and more data centers,” says David Aaroe, co-founder of Fortis Construction, the Portland-based firm that is building Facebook’s data center with DPR Construction. He estimates it will take between 10 and 15 years of building data centers before demand flattens out. Oregon will get more big data centers, he says, especially if a price is put on carbon. Fortis is currently evaluating Oregon sites for two clients.

A wave of data centers in Oregon would be a welcome flow of job-creating investments. Municipalities and economic development agencies are quick to offer incentives to powerhouse tech firms with money to spend, with good reason. But while the economic benefits are self-evident, the environmental costs are harder to predict.

Luckily, the companies with this green liability in Oregon are some of the most innovative players in one of the most innovative industries. Tech companies have improved efficiency across sectors, including retail, media consumption and travel, and now they’re doing it again: Efficiency gains in data centers will cut the carbon footprint of any business that relies on data. Giving farsighted, flexible companies such as Google, Intel, Amazon and Facebook the responsibility of bringing sustainability to the Internet is like assigning everybody’s homework to the smartest kid in the class. And because of economic pressure, growing public awareness, the specter of regulation and, yes, a sense of social responsibility, they’re working hard to get it in on time.


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