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N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture

A New York Times examination of increasing data center use and its environmental impact focuses on aging enterprise data centers. A more important issue: How much environmental benefit can we reap from today's modern cloud data centers?

Columbia Sportswear, for example, during the last nine months has virtualized its main data center, moving it in the process from Portland, Ore., to Englewood, Colo. What had been 300 servers in Portland became 65 in Englewood. Those 65 are working harder than their predecessors; with each server running multiple applications, up to 80% of the CPU cycles are utilized, as opposed to the 7% to 15% range not so long ago. Michael Leeper, director of global technology, says he's looking for additional efficiencies.

Cloud data centers do the same thing, only more so. Instead of having air conditioned machines and IT staff in the data center, a cloud data center has a small operations crew in a command room running thousands of identical servers in a production facility. The machine space may be cooled to only 98 degrees. That's too hot for most people, but computers don't mind the higher temperature, saving electricity formerly used in cooling.

But the Times article rolls up the old enterprise data center into the new cloud data center without distinguishing between the two and offers up this quote, from an unnamed, "senior industry executive": the low rate of utilization is "an industry dirty secret. No one wants to be the first to say mea culpa. If we were a manufacturing industry, we'd be out of business."

That's an odd conclusion to reach. The only pollution cited is for operating unauthorized emergency diesel generators during an outage, for which Amazon Web Services and others have been cited in Virginia. Amazon paid a fine and got the required permits.

The Times indictment seems to be a broader one, that if any single industrial plant were responsible for the pollution caused by a data center, it would be out of business. But even this generous interpretation doesn't make sense. The electrical power utility is responsible for containing the pollution; the rate the data center pays covers its share of the cost. What is the Times trying to say? By virtue of the fact that it was built, the data center is guilty of something.

Larger Environmental Questions

Critics of the cloud on environmental grounds beg a much larger question. To reach the conclusions that Glanz does, they must assume running more cloud data centers is inherently wasteful and wrong. They seem to assume much of the activity these data centers support is trivial and of little social value; the activity's main result is to incur more environmental damage.

This is a Luddite view of what's happening in the post-PC, digital era. As more of the economy is digitized, you can argue that it relies less on the consumption of materials and movement of goods and more on digital services executed electronically. There are often favorable trade-offs to the environment in these transactions.

For example, when or any online supplier engages a customer, that means someone hasn't gotten into a car and driven to a store. If the site visitor makes a purchase, it must be delivered, but UPS and other delivery services consolidate many shippers' packages into one truck route. That's a favorable alternative to multiple trips. Isn't the cloud is functioning efficiently there?

Yes, people are engaged in playing games in the cloud, following Twitter, and checking their bank accounts. But cloud services also help buyers sift through information when making a major purchase, such as a car, reducing the time spent going from dealership to dealership. Likewise, few people drive to travel agents offices to plan a trip anymore. They move digital bits around instead.

The Department of Motor Vehicles distributing an electronic form saves thousands of consumers time and money, while reducing reliance on paper produced from trees. Electronic books arrive at their destination without any motor vehicle assistance. Who's done a full energy audit that ends up concluding the cloud data center is an energy wastrel in these exchanges? I don't see one in the Times.

On a larger scale, enterprises used to have to establish a disaster recovery site with hardware and software that closely mimicked the main data center. Now they can move digital bits--instead of equipment--in the form of virtual machine files that travel over the wire instead. Columbia Sportswear is an example of a company establishing back up virtual machines in the cloud. It's planning to establish the capability to move the virtual machine files around, wherever they're needed, after a natural disaster occurs. Such a maneuver was needed last year when the tsunami struck northeastern Japan, causing Columbia's Tokyo data center to shut down.

The Times article also skips discussion of data center consolidation--combining multiple data center physical sites into one site--which represents one of the biggest trends in enterprise and government IT in recent years. Virtualization and cloud technologies have aided in that consolidation work.

In many instances, it's better for the environment that the cloud data center exists. It's acting as a substitute for higher energy-consuming, physical activity. Nevertheless, the assumptions aired in the Times article, erroneous or not, are sure to become broader societal concerns, if four years from now the Midwest is still caught in a withering drought and the world's food supplies are crashing. In the face of environmental disaster, whether a particular data center functions efficiently or not is probably going to be moot. Both business and consumers will find that their data centers have become government-regulated utilities and their use is being strictly rationed--to cut emissions of course.

To avoid such an outcome and keep a rational discourse going, best practices for efficient data center operation should be debated and implemented. Energy hogs need to be retired, perhaps ahead of life expectancy. A case needs to be built that an efficient enterprise data center, working in concert with a cloud facility, can use the new hybrid cloud model of computing to expel some of the worst over-provisioning practices of yesteryear's IT organizations.

Data centers are not the problem. They're part of the solution. But we have a ways to go to establish that.

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User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2012 | 6:10:50 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
Your article is important and useful.
My worry is that the NYT will not update their analysis.
That would leave millions of readers seriously misinformed.

They wouldn't want to admit they're wrong.

On the other hand, I hope your article gets some play out there so
many people will read it.

I've had this happen in other situations - someone publishes something
that is far from correct or has major omissions.
I write them, they say thank you, they never do anything about it.
Again, they don't want to admit they're wrong.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2012 | 6:11:50 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
The larger question here is why would anyone take the NYT seriously? This is an organization as biased and untrustworthy as there is in this country. The writer - as the majority of their journalists - already had a preconceived idea about computing that he wanted to disseminate. He certainly wasn't going to let a few facts and some basic research get in his way. There are a couple of million ninnies in Manhattan that eat that type of garbage up. Your readers are a lot smarter than that.
Permabit Tom
Permabit Tom,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2012 | 7:06:29 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
I read with interest the first Cloud Factory article, "Power, Pollution and the Internet," in the New York Times and hope that future entries in their series will delve deeper into the "many ... solutions [that] are readily available" to decrease wasted power, including virtualization, which the author briefly referenced at the end of the story. This disruptive technology is being provided today by several companies to provide "virtual machines" that can do the exact same jobs as their physical counterparts while minimizing the need for additional hardware to run business-critical applications. Implementation of data storage optimization technologies, like deduplication, which removes the need to physically store redundant (or duplicate) data, helps reduce the need for additional storage hardware (i.e. disk drives) and thereby the floor space, power and cooling required for it. The adoption rate of these technologies is soaring because of their positive impact on TCO.
Tom Cook, CEO Permabit Technology Corporation
User Rank: Apprentice
9/25/2012 | 7:38:25 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
Charlie, you show amazing restraint.
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2012 | 11:30:08 AM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
The problem with any data center is that it concentrates the energy usage into one spot and with that the environmental impact. For centuries we found that distributed organizations and systems are more sustainable and in the end work better than putting everything into one spot. Data centers are like the big screw that holds everything together. One big flood, earthquake, labor strike, hurricane, etc and the center is off the grid. And with that the hundreds of organizations that blindly trust that the cloud will always be there.
rk web consultant
rk web consultant,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/26/2012 | 1:47:33 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
Thanks for this
NJ Mike
NJ Mike,
User Rank: Moderator
9/26/2012 | 5:12:57 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
The new york times is a newspaper that is living off it's reputation, and puts pushing it's political view before reporting accurate news. Just because it's published in New York doesn't mean it is accurate, or worth reading, despite it's arrogant view of itselft.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/26/2012 | 10:25:53 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
I am posting this comment for Deepak Jain, CEO of AiNET.

The article misses that the cloud allows upgrades to equipment without taking customersG«÷ applications down, allowing further improvements. Virtualization leader VMWare (of which AiNET is a partner) shows significant savings and uptake from progressive well run businesses looking to their data center operations as critical to their operation.

With AiNET technology, we can do what is call High Availability and Fault Tolerance. But even without super-advanced technology, using the basic technology allows you to stay up longer by not having to go down for routine thingsG«™ like the hard drive failed in your machine or the machine just got old. You can move your applications around without worrying about the actual hardware (the server) anymore. ThatG«÷s a game changerG«™.

greg schulz
greg schulz,
User Rank: Author
9/27/2012 | 1:05:28 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
What the NY Times article accomplished was to get views, reads, hits, follow-up posts, stories referencing it and so forth all of which are moving bits and bytes of data through various data centers/cloud facilities and actually using those servers, storage, networking and other technologies that as they claim, may have been underutilized.

What the NY Times article also accomplished was to bring back to life some of the themes, claims, challenges and discussions of the 2008 era that while not all have been addressed, many are being implemented. These range from data footprint reduction (DFR) such as archiving, backup modernization, compression, dedupe, storage tiering, data management along with intelligent or smart cooling and power management, more effective power supplies and distribution, faster servers that can do more work within the same physical and energy density supporting more memory and IO. There is also virtualization being used for consolidation as well as agility, along with clouds, IO performance optimization with SSD and many many more.

One of the challenges with the NY Times article, however IMHO it might also be a good example of the data center facilities focused centric view around the Greengrid PUE metric as a means of gauging efficiency. The challenge around PUE as by itself, it only measures the efficiency of the facility as opposed to the effectiveness of the work being done by the servers, storage, networking, hardware, software and other occupants of those habitats of technology. Thus you can have a data center that looks to be efficient based on PUE, however if the hardware and software that support business functions is not effective, than you actually have an inefficient information factory.

On the other hand, you could use the NY Times point of view and cite a data center or cloud site as being inefficient, yet, if that site is productive in terms of the level of services being delivered (performance, availability/reliability, cost, work done per watt of energy, etc), you in fact would have an effective and productive information factory.

If it took as some have pointed out a year of research for the NY Times piece, IG«÷m not sure what was done during that year because in 2008 while doing my normal day job as an independent IT advisory analyst and consultant, I also managed to research and write the book "The Green and Virtual Data Center" (CRC/Taylor and Francis) which is on the Intel Recommended Reading List for developers (shameless plug ;) )...

If you are interested in learning more about the above and related themes, here are some links that Im assuming the NY Times wont be interested in...

Green IT Confusion Continues, Opportunities Missed!

Green IT, Green Gap, Tiered Energy and Green Myths

The other Green Storage: Efficiency and Optimization

Saving Money with Green IT: Time To Invest In Information Factories

PUE, Are you Managing Power, Energy or Productivity?

Shifting from energy avoidance to energy efficiency

Green IT Confusion Continues, Opportunities Missed!

Closing the Green Gap G«Ű Green washing may be endangered, however addressing real green issues is here to stay

Aso where you can find some free chapter downloads and more reated material.

Cheers gs.

Greg Schulz

User Rank: Apprentice
9/28/2012 | 2:17:26 PM
re: N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture
It is obvious that the New York TImes is once again out to create an incendiary controversy about its competition. Just as the economics cretin Paul Krugman keeps getting his soapbox, this writer is out to pillory the competition that is eating The Times' breakfast, lunch and dinner.
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