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Times Blasts Data Center Energy Waste; Industry Calls Story Unfair

Data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, with idly running servers and backup generators the major contributors, according to a report published by The New York Times, which has garnered some backlash by industry commentators.

The article is the first in a series about how the cloud’s physical structures affect the environment, part of a yearlong investigation by The Times.

Data centers use about 30 GW worldwide, and those in the US account for one-quarter to one-third of that total, The Times reports. The report blames this waste on “comatose” or unneeded servers running idly, and backup generators running when they’re not actually being used.

It uses LexisNexis as an example. The company hired Viridity Software to help manage its energy use, and found that in one sample of 333 servers monitored in 2012, more than half were comatose and three-quarters were using less than 10 percent, on average, of their “computational brainpower” to process data.

A Santa Clara, Calif.-based company called Power Assure makes a technology that allows data centers to safely power down servers overnight, or at other times when they’re not being used. But the local electrical utility, Silicon Valley Power, hasn’t been able to get any data centers to use the technology because of “nervousness in the IT community” about potential service interruptions.

The newspaper’s investigation also uncovered environmental violations such as those incurred by Amazon’s data centers in Manassas, Va. The Times reports the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality inspected Amazon’s Manassas data center beginning in 2010 and fined the company $554,476 for running diesel generators without the required environmental permits. The agency eventually reduce Amazon’s fee to $261,638.

In 2009, it says, Amazon paid $3,496 for similar permit violations.

Additionally, Virginia officials have cited data centers run by Qwest, Savvis, VeriSign and NTT America, and in the Chicago area, Savvis and Equinix have received violation notices.

Industry commentary around the web largely criticized The Times’ report.

Dan Woods, CTO and editor of CITO Research, writing for Forbes, called it a “confused and incomplete article,” because the examples cited are data center run by IT departments, not “state of the art data centers run by the Internet companies,” which Woods says are much more efficient.

Diego Doval, former infrastructure architect at Ning, wrote in his blog that the article presented an “incredibly inaccurate representation of the dedication and hard work of eng/ops everywhere in the computer industry.”

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One thought on “Times Blasts Data Center Energy Waste; Industry Calls Story Unfair

  1. Data center managers are a culturally conservative lot. Most server farms are still cooled the same way that IBM mainframes from the 1960’s were cooled — by locating them inside a chilled room or building. Using fans and designed airflow to concentrate cooling is considered almost radical. But modern computing technology generates its heat from a small number of components in known locations, unlike the days of vacuum tubes and big tape drives when pretty much every piece of equipment generated a lot of heat. The NYT article may have gotten its trees mixed up, but at the level of the forest their conclusion is pretty accurate and the direction of change indicated is entirely appropriate.

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