A Race to Create Innovative and Energy Efficient Data Centers

Authored by:  Chandani Patel, 3rd year law student

Whether it’s by way of smart phones or personal computers, today’s world relies on the Internet. Unfortunately, demand for the Internet has led to an ever-increasing consumer demand for energy as well. Given the high demand for energy, technology companies are now fighting to take the medal for being the most “green.”  In an effort to become more green, technology companies, especially Internet companies, have relied on making data centers, the backbone of the Internet, more efficient.  Among the top contenders are Yahoo, Facebook, and Google.

In September of 2010, Yahoo built a 150,000-square-foot data center, accommodating 50,000 servers and cooled by 100 percent outside air (in contrast to the large power-hungry chillers in most data centers) in Lockport, New York. Rather than having its cooling system gobble a good half of the energy consumption of a traditional data center, Yahoo’s Chicken Coop design attributes just one percent of its annual energy consumption to cooling.  Additionally, this data center not only uses forty percent less energy than a typical data center, it is powered by 100 percent carbon-free hydropower, that it is able to generate because of the utility (basically, power from dams), in that region.

Just a few months later in April of 2011, Facebook announced its custom-designed Prineville, Oregon data center, where everything, including the software and servers, were built from scratch. Not only did Facebook remove the large chillers that can account for up to half of a data center’s power consumption, it designed its facility to maintain evaporative cooling, keeping the data center cool by spraying water into incoming air.  The servers were then designed to be able to work in such a humid environment.  In addition to reducing cooling power, the social network minimizes power consumption by deploying server fans that account for two percent to four percent of energy consumption per server, compared to the industry average of ten to twelve percent.

Google also maintains evaporative cooling and designed and built most of its centers from scratch, including its servers, which use energy-saving chips and software. In an effort to eliminate its waste, Google was the first to install Bloom Energy servers in 2008, and reduces its electricity consumption by twenty-five percent per year by buying its electricity from wind farms.

Much of this recent competition among technology companies to make data centers more efficient can be accredited to federal policy.  In an effort to evaluate and address the economic damage that would be caused by an inability to meet future energy demand, Congress in Public Law 109-431 asked the Environmental Protection Agency  (EPA) to develop a report assessing the trends in energy use and energy costs of data centers and servers in the United States. Congress also asked the EPA to outline existing and emerging opportunities for improved energy.  In its 2006 assessment, the EPA suggested that by 2011, energy consumption by servers and data centers would nearly double to more than 100 billion kW, representing a $7.4 billion annual electricity cost.

With these increasing costs in electricity, technology companies and the federal government have begun to realize that becoming more energy efficient will help reduce economic costs.  In an effort to cut wasteful spending, President Obama has issued a directive to close 926 data centers by the end of 2015, a move that is expected to save $5 billion dollars in savings for American taxpayers.  In a report issued by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget last month, the federal government expects to close 195 data centers by the end of the year, and 472 data centers by the end of 2012.  With the close of these data centers, it is inevitable that more energy efficient data centers will make up for the loss.  The government has also provided funding to companies like Yahoo, who was granted $9.9 million dollars by the Department of Energy for its $150 million dollar energy efficient data center.

However, although the efforts of the government and these technology companies are commendable, most have failed to state exactly how much energy they actually use.  This resistance let up in September of 2011, when Google was one of the first to let out its secret.  The company declared to have consumed 260 million watts of electricity per year and 1.5 million metric tons of total carbon emissions in 2010. The self-imposed accountability and openness to reveal that its energy consumption equates to that of the UN operational’s energy usage, and just above the emission level of the country of Laos, is profound.

By releasing its numbers on energy usage, Google has made a significant step in greener business. The hope now is that other companies will follow Google’s lead and release their most coveted numbers.  Google’s active involvement in implementing public policies to accelerate the adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies provides a model for other companies to follow.  Today’s consumers demand energy, companies demand energy-efficient data centers, and now hopefully society will demand transparency.

To enable this futuristic level of transparency, strong efforts to benefit from and contribute to becoming more energy efficient have already been made. Facebook recently formed the Open Compute Project where companies can openly share how they are striving to make more energy efficient and economical data centers.  Dell, HP, Rackspace, Skype, Zynga are a few of the companies collaborating to do just that.  Google not only teamed up with Intel in 2007 to champion more efficient computing and reduce energy consumption by fifty-four million tons per year with the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, it is also a participant in The Green Grid, a global consortium focused on developing standards for facility and IT equipment efficiency.  A firm believer in collaboration, Google hosted two events; the Efficient Data Center Summit 2009 in the U.S. and the European Data Centre Summit in 2011, which included a proposal to the U.S. Green Building Council for a new LEED Datacenter Program.

Although initiated by an increase in energy demand and economic incentives, the efforts technology companies and the government have made to reduce the nation’s energy consumption and carbon footprint has made for a great race.  However, data center energy demand accounts for almost two percent of world electricity consumption, and this number is only expected to quadruple over the next ten years.  Therefore, these initial steps to reduce energy consumption through efficient data centers, although critical to our environment and economy, are only preliminary.  To ensure the protection of our environment for the future, further policies and regulation in addition to private efforts are essential.  Consequently, the race to be green must go on.

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