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A Great Deal of Hot Air

By Phil Factor,

It is hard to believe that the energy being used by Data-Centers could be contributing significantly to global warming. Estimates vary as to the energy consumption, though we're told by Gartner that energy costs could be up to 12% of the total running-costs of a Data Center. Usage is growing at 11% per annum, mainly due to the huge increase in smartphone usage (1.1 billion by 2013). The EU base their policy on an estimate of electricity consumption by data centers of 56 TWh per year in Europe, doubling by 2020. This alarming figure includes temperature regulation, lighting, backup power and so on, as well as the actual servers.

Naturally, it is in the interests of everyone to keep this energy consumption down, and this is one of the reasons why Virtualization has spread so rapidly, and is behind the drive for technologies with reduced power requirements such as Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture, SSDs, and long-term technologies such as the "double floating-gate field effect transistor". So far the effect of improving the technology of servers to reduce their energy consumption hasn't been visible, since the effect has been masked by the increase in CPU and memory to cope with the growth in cloud computing, mobile Internet and video and data applications. The current problem is that the power requirements don't scale with the loading on the server. As soon as this is achieved, then we hope to see an end to the relentless growth in the energy usage of Data Centers.

Even though neither the science nor politics of climate change is fully established yet, the legislators and bureaucrats have smelt an opportunity to further tighten their grip on IT. A sign of things to come is the EU's Code of Conduct for Data Centers on Energy Efficiency. Although it is currently 'advisory', legislation for limiting energy usage is beginning to appear. Already, in the UK, there is legislation known wordily as the 'Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme', which threatens draconian fines to companies with large energy-consumption that do not register, and encourages firms to indulge in 'carbon trading'. The increasing heavy-handed legislation on the energy usage of data centers in the west has helped to drive an investment in huge data centers in countries with less interest in avoiding climate change, and 'off-shoring' of data services so that it becomes someone else's problem.

A great deal is being already being done to reduce the energy needs of large data centers: The will is there, and I would guess that a combination of application redesign, architecture, insulation, engineering and sheer ingenuity will solve the problem. The introduction of legislation will do little at this stage but drive the problem elsewhere, which would be fine if only the effects of man-made climate-change could likewise be dumped in someone else's back yard.

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