Has the New York Times Got a Point About Data Center Waste?

In case you were off the planet last weekend, “Power, Pollution and the Internet” a critique of the data center industry by James Glanz caused quite a stir when it made front page news in Sunday’s New York Times. If you have seen it, the article accuses the data centers sector of wasting vast amounts of energy “helping to process the staggering amount of Internet activity that occurs”.

305 comments were posted online. It seemed to me that some commentators were very well informed about the facilities side of data centers, and others about the IT side of the sector (proposing the use of SSDs or RISC processors to resolve problems of energy consumption). And there were a few who’d succumbed to either the “greenwash” which surrounds some companies and their facilities or the sensationalist tone of the article.

Once the NYT closed its pages to further comment, a number of articles and blogs quickly sprung up to deride or defend the sector, or in some cases attack the journalism. It’s not surprising that a major publication should make an attack on the industry. As Kevin Heslin says on his Mission Critical blog “Data centers have become too large, too important, and too resource hungry to remain out of the public eye for long.” And to be fair, this has been a long time in the making; if you cast your mind back, before the year of research which went into this article, the NYT had worked with Jonathan Koomey to try and get a fix on the amount of energy being used globally by data centers.

Since Koomey is a respected and often quoted researcher (at least, at the sort of seminars I attend) and James Glanz has more than a passing interest or knowledge of the data center sector, I wonder whether it’s right to overlook obvious anomalies, (such as the way the work of bodies like the Green Grid and EU Code of Conduct is unmentioned, as is the size of VMware – how’d that company get so large if server utilization is still so low?) and ask myself whether the NYT conclusion is right, even if their reasoning or technical underpinnings are incorrect.

In a potentially overlooked paragraph, just before Glanz moves on to talk about emissions violations resulting from generator use, the NYT quotes Dennis P. Symanski, a senior researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute, a not-for-profit industry group: “It’s a waste,” he says. “It’s too many insurance policies.” Here’s a point I think we can all agree upon. For years the industry has over-provisioned because the need for availability has always outweighed the desire to be inefficient. An acceptable fact or not, all the time the industry was foundling, it wasn’t an interesting problem for journalists to expose.

But all that has changed: the quantity of data, the amount of servers, the volume of storage and the size and number of data centers means that ignoring efficiency is not a sustainable manner of operation. For the NYT to suggest that data centers are deliberately wasting energy is to completely ignore the fact that energy costs are an unwelcome operating expense that any sensible business person would want to minimize. Unless the balance sheet, shareholders and bank manager all think that profligacy really is the way to go.

In regards to efficiency, I think that we have made steps forward in the industry which the New York Times has chosen to ignore or overlook. But we can still go further; at Schneider Electric, we’re trying to eliminate the causes of over-provisioning and we need your help! To read more about our Genome project, please read my blog post “Your Planet Needs You! Help Cut Waste Caused By Over-Sizing Data Centers” and sign up to participate in our DNA database project.

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