Data centres make the front page!

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“Power, Pollution and the Internet” may not be the headline you want to be associated with but it brought data centres to the front page of the New York Times on 22 September.  As someone who has tried for a while without success to get his teenage children to appreciate just how interesting and valuable data centres are, and how dependent their everyday lives are on them, this was not the likely to paint things in the best light!  At around 5,000 words the article is long and wide-ranging and, from the techie’s perspective, simplistic.  But most readers aren’t techies and there is value in making Joe and Jill Consumer aware of what these modern factories – a.k.a. data centres – are and I believe the power consumption of data centres is a big business issue, let alone a social one.

The sensationalism of the article, written by James Glanz, comes in the claim that most data centres waste vast amounts of energy.  An uncomfortable truth, perhaps, and the article has attracted plenty of comments including this one as well as a lot of Twitter traffic.  (Oops – that means more data centre power consumed!)  There are some impassioned rebuttals, too, by people with real data centre expertise.  For example, an article published on Forbes’ web-site thinks the NYT piece a “sloppy failure“; and this blog talks about needing “a lot of lead bullets” to solve the problem.

The core of the objections seems to me to be that of tarring all data centres with the same brush.  The article mentions a few big names, the ones most consumers will have heard of – Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo.  These represent <0.1% of data centres and are probably leading the way in operating efficiencies.  Their electricity bills must be colossal and they won’t want to waste money.  But, as the article states, IDC estimates there are 3 million data centres worldwide!  The vast majority of these are not going have much in common with the big guys from an operational perspective.  They are not going to be new build, they are not going to be instrumented to the same depth, they are not going to benefit from utilising the latest and most efficient technologies.  Most of them will be located within office buildings, not stand alone, purpose built sheds.

The NYT article does bring home the fact that terms such as “the virtual world”, “the cloud” and the Internet are seated in the real, physical world of data centres.  Many of these exist to feed the Internet and provide services across it to consumers and businesses alike, but many more are there purely for the use by and benefit of the companies and other organisations which own them.  Most corporate executives have no idea what it really costs to run these facilities that their businesses depend on.  Getting a grip on this is very important because many of these data centres are wasting vast amounts of energy.  Investing in DCIM is part of the solution.

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