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Dollars and data

This article appears in the issue June 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 6]


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I’m going to confess to a certain ignorance. I’ve taken data centers for granted. Oh, sure, I realize that mammoth server farms are daily making trillions of connections to provide the processing backbone for the vast amount of computing performed for the government, in the business world and in our personal lives.

I know, of course, that massive servers generate a lot of heat, and heat means energy. It wasn’t untila little more than a month ago, though, that the extent of my ignorance reared its ugly head (OK, maybe it was willful ignorance). I discovered that the electrical consumption by data centers amounted to 1.5 percent of the entire country’s use of electricity in 2006. And that’s a very conservative assumption (some "authorities" claimed it was as high as 10 percent). In any event, that’s a lot of light bulbs.

The financial estimate of those electricity costs was $4.5 billion three years ago. In 2011, that figure is expected to reach $7.4 billion, and some say 10 more power plants would be needed to supply that extra energy. And then there are the environmental ramifications: emissions, cooling medium, site placement … It goes on and on.

Most likely, this is old news for a lot of you, but I’d like to think encouraging awareness about this increasingly important topic can only be a very good thing. Let’s face it, data centers will become more important to our daily lives here—and around the world, where the growth (by percentage) of electrical consumption will no doubt outpace that in this country.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been on this imperative for at least four years and has set up its Energy Star program for data centers. The initiative falls under the same umbrella as the one established for household appliances, but instead of refrigerators and water heaters, it focuses on data centers, which can house some 25,000 high-end servers. In cooperation with industry, the project really started taking shape under the previous administration and is, quite appropriately, gaining more momentum now under the Obama administration.

If I were an electrical engineer or computer scientist, I could articulate the nuances of the inspired solutions postulated by a myriad of gifted minds focusing on the ever-growing importance of dramatically reducing electricity consumptionby data center. All the major players in that arena—Xerox, IBM, Sun, etc.—and countless other vendors, analysts, integrators, academics—are devoting significant resources to such green initiatives. Industry groups such as the Uptime Institute are committed to the endeavor. Government is doing considerably more than providing lip service because, after all, data centers shouldn’t be responsible for 1.5 percent of the country’s energy consumption.

Most of us are finally acknowledging the limits to the natural resources upon which modern society has been built. Right now, the socio-political climate is ideal to actively encourage the one unlimited natural resource: the human imagination.


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