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N.Y. Times Data Center Indictment Misses Big Picture

A <em>New York Times</em> 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?

Charles Babcock

September 24, 2012

5 Min Read

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 Amazon.com 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.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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