NYTimes: Data Centers Are Evil Incarnate

September 24th, 2012 by · 20 Comments

If you ever wanted to read about how data centers are single handedly destroying the planet through intentionally wasteful design and greedy, unrestrained, unnecessary consumption all driven by the voracious demands of modern consumers, well now’s your chance. That’s the New York Times’s take over the weekend, which you can of course read online on the device of your choosing and thereby help waste yet more energy. 

Data centers are gobbling up more and more energy as our society’s fascination with data accelerates. And there’s no doubt they could be doing it more efficiently. But my takeaway from this sort of article is the same one I usually have when the media get that green glint in their eye, even those with PhDs like the author of the NYT article.

You know what I mean, when we could all just be living in utopia if everyone would just go out tomorrow and buy solar panels and put a windmill in the backyard (just not where it blocks anyone’s view or chops up any endangered birds), buy organic, and pretend we know what a carbon footprint is. I’m an environmentalist but I was also trained as a chemical engineer, and I know a one-sided anti-technology troll when I hear it on TV or read it in the newspaper.

Yep, data centers use a lot of energy (who knew!?), but so did the way we used to share information and work together. Data center designers and operators are at the forefront of new technology implementation and testing around the world and they know more than anyone just how important it is to contain energy consumption.  But no matter how successful they are, the fact is that the data center’s place in our economy is only going to grow from here – and its energy consumption must inevitably follow.  And because of that, there will always be those who view the industry as the devil of the day.

Powering data centers was, is, and will be a huge job in which the bulk of existing facilities are inevitably wasteful by the standards of the latest ones.  It is, therefore, unlikely we will ever measure up to the standards by which our hyperactive, short-attention-span society has at any given time. Economics and the pace of technological development make that inevitable.

But it’s just the media’s way of getting more eyeballs: exposing the obvious via one-sided hyperbole to stir up the pot.  That this weekend the target was the data center is just a sign of the times — i.e. the arrival of the data center as important enough to the world to be an easy but impenetrable target.  After all, if you want to see people get really mad, just add an extra half second of  response time to each click on all their devices in order to save energy.  In the meantime, let’s just get on with the construction of the infrastructure of the new world we’ll be living in next year.

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Categories: Datacenter

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20 Comments So Far

  • CoCo says:

    Couldn’t agree more on the green glint – and its why so many people have really started to disregard the sky is falling simple-minded mentality of the enviro-nazis. “It was so hot today, that must mean people are bad and greedy!”

    Over the long term, also its inconceivable (and reflects a typical journalist failure to understand elementary business ideas) to me that the act of pooling resources into central locations (rather than everyone for himself premises with basements full of gear that seldom gets used) can be bad for energy consumption. Having played in the DC and collo space, I also think its specious to claim that these companies are making their money off the power sales. Its in the space, the interconnection pricing/consolidation, and increasingly the service/value adds. The first piece of negotiation that every tenant or potential tenant wants to discuss is why they are paying so much for power – and the BLECs have extremely limited breathing room on that front, and the trend is almost exclusively for that margin to shrink and prices to go up, over time.

  • Mark says:

    CoCo, I agree about the positive impact of pooling resources, but I don’t see how concerns about energy consumption reflect on the “simple-minded mentality of the enviro-nazis.” Is it not lost on you that you’re dismissing an entire set of arguments and evidence with a simple epithet? And yet they, you would have us believe, are the simple-minded ones?

    • CoCo says:

      Point taken, but boiling down their stance to a sentence is what you do on a one paragraph internet response. There is a nice growing body of evidence to suggest that the green glint (definitely like the phrase, Robert) is increasingly devoid of rational thought – both in print, news, and on its face – and that it has resorted to any tactic it can to try and get its mojo back – now to include attacking our industry and its patron saints. Try this one on for “size”: http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2012/09/19/italian-study-shows-male-genitalia-is-shrinking/ – its because of air pollution and global warming!

      THAT’s why I take this type of fearmongering with a grain of salt.

      No one is going to complain we are trying to conserve energy. But the best barometer of that successful effort has been and remains the free market, which I would trust over a PhD journalist any day of the week. Consolidating power and consumption and finding other models to use it more effectively are the natural result of that free market. And thus far, all the billions thrown at the next great energy source that’s just around the corner if only we can throw a few trillion more without any return on investment has been just that – billions of dollars THROWN, not invested.

      If you think that some solar panels on the roof of 60 Hudson will power the building, I have a bridge to sell you.

      • The thing is, there are plenty of things to be afraid of. It’s just that the media (and politicians) seem to be incapable of doing anything other than muddling the science so badly it is unrecognizable. Global warming is actually the real deal, but the crap they say about it in the media just make me cringe on a daily basis.

        A few years back I was in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, and the topic was pollution. Over and over the western media told everyone how Beijing’s explosion in car ownership was destroying the air. The air was horrible of course, similar to that of Pittsburgh in the 60s but with more dust. But it was never the cars and any scientist or engineer who thought for 10 minutes could have (and did) tell them that.

        In 2008 Beijing had several times more people than the NY metro area, but 1/10th the cars – each of which were smaller on average than the US (few SUVs at all). Public transport usage was huge, and those not using it usually rode bikes (still do). Yet NY’s air isn’t bad these days and hence Beijing’s would have been better if it were car exhaust. Reporters blaming Beijing’s pollution on cars were talking out of the wrong orifice.

        But Beijing’s pollution was horrible and is horrible, and to this day the average person doesn’t know why. The reason is the same as for Pittsburgh in the 60s: massive inefficient steel production and dirty coal, end of story. To clear the skies for the Olympics they just shut down the mills for two months and swapped clean coal for dirty coal in areas far from the game. Then they did some token stuff on limiting car driving that the media just ate up – it matched their urban myth of the day, so it must be right.

        Two weeks after the Olympics ended the smog was back and it’s still here. Big surprise.

        Ok, rant over.

        • Frank A. Coluccio says:

          Rob, if that was a rant, then it was a good one. I’d like to expand on it. First, I’m glad you mentioned Bejing’s Olympics smog woes, in these regards, since it corroborates nicely something I read only yesterday in Cogeneration magazine about the city of Turin, Italy.

          Turin has taken Herculean strides modernizing its combined heat and power grid, to the point where it’s among Europe’s best environmentally “managed” cities by several measures. Yet, it fails repeatedly in meeting pollution tests, making it No. 240 out of a total of 241 cities measured.

          I’ll cut and paste, below, a snippet from “Turin – toward a smart energy city” http://www.cospp.com/articles/print/volume-13/issue-4/project-profile/turin-towards-a-smart-energy-city.html :

          begin snip:

          “But, although the last 35 years have seen concentrations of sulphur oxides fall by two orders of magnitude, the situation remains poor in terms of nitrogen oxides, ozone and particulate matter. This is mostly due to a combination of heavy emissions, mainly from traffic, and local meteorology, which is typified by frequent winter thermal inversions and very low ventilation year-round. … A recent survey by the Italian Statistical Institute (ISTAT) of European cities for 2004–08 using data from the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) AirBase found that Torino ranks 220th in a group of 221 European cities for air quality. The analysis was based on a single indicator – the average number of times that legally defined concentration limits were exceeded for the three pollutants mentioned above: nitrogen oxides, ozone and particulates. Legal concentrations were exceeded, on average, by a factor of 2.5.
          –end snip

          Does that about cover the situation in Bejing you were describing?

          [Incidentally, it was I (anonymous) who responded to CoCo above concerning the dreaded Jevons paradox. The Ramblings password widget is still playing funny games with my user name syntax, btw.]


      • Anonymous says:

        “No one is going to complain we are trying to conserve energy.”

        Oh yes they would. There are several different splits of stakeholders, some quite surprising due to their stated purposes, who have spent quite a bit of time complaining that there’s been too much emphasis on efficiency. Green glint aside (a catchy phrase, but I’ll return to that another time), some objectors prefer, instead, abundance through renewables, since… they argue, creating greater efficiency without adding to supply merely results in a classic Jevons Paradox.

  • SamIAm says:

    “concerns about energy consumption” is different than demagoguery of an industry for an anti-business screed typical of the NYT: turn on anyone making money. I think that is the point above???

    but a critique of the failure of our media is probably for another forum website

  • Patricia says:

    I attended a green technology presentation held at Georgia Institute of Technology earlier this year. The NSIDC Data Center, located in Colorado, was showcased. It was a very interesting presentation; they use solar technology and other tools to reduce a significant amount of energy consumption. Some data centers are going green. 🙂

  • MoreFiber says:

    Robert, I think the image used for your article is incorrect – what appears to be the Data Center Collective circling our planet is actually Level 3 – LOL.

    • CoCo says:

      A great case in point of how dumb the regulatory climate around energy has become: I happen to know the rules this refers to, and its all about carving out credits and environmental estimating.

      So instead of blame MSFT, why not blame the regulatory asshatery that encouraged it? They see a rule, there is a perfectly legit way to save hundreds of thousands, they take that path… THEY are the villain??? So, MSFT was supposed to pony up extra dough to save the planet? How about getting rid of these idiotic rules and they will “save the planet” BECAUSE it saves them money?

  • Mark says:

    CoCo, WRONG. You’re just making crap up. If you’d read the article, you would know that what you just said is verifiably incorrect – see Page 4.

    Some environmental regulations are dumb, but many are far too weak and I don’t understand why people like you seem so psychologically committed to running interference for polluters.

    I look forward to you reading the article and acknowledging that MSFT is guilty of “asshattery,” and that if anything, current environmental protections are unfortunately ill-equipped to save the people of Quincy from companies that could give a damn whether they get sick.

    • CoCo says:

      page 4, yup – sure enough, like the LAST TIME i read it, its about estimating future consumption and receiving the credits (or penalties) for it. The utlity companies get punished for running too much or too little supply: not by the rule of demand liek it ought, but by various ASSHAT government orgs. so they pass it on to consumers.

      No one is “running interference” for “polluters”, so stop with the sanctimony. I’m no Microsoft fan. I’m even LESS a fan of:

      “received notice last December that it was likely to face a penalty from the Grant County Public Utility District. Surprisingly, it was for using too little power”.

      No wonder we’re about to re-elect more ASSHATs.

      • Mark says:

        Again, wrong:

        “After several years of poor forecasts based on input from the large industrial users, the utility instituted the provision. It requires large industrial customers to file load forecasts each fall for the next calendar year and face a penalty if they are off by a significant margin in either direction.

        At the end of last year, said Ms. Morford, the utility spokeswoman, just two customers were in line for penalties for using less energy than they had asked the utility to set aside for them: data centers operated by Yahoo and Microsoft.

        Yahoo paid its $94,608 penalty, Ms. Morford said. Microsoft took a different tack.

        That is when Microsoft threatened to waste tremendous amounts of power by simply running giant heaters for no purpose, according to utility officials who said they were briefed on the matter by Microsoft, unless the penalty was largely forgiven. The idea was to burn the power fast enough to move closer to the forecast before year’s end.”

    • Fancy Pants says:

      Likewise, I don’t understand why people like you seem so psychologically committed to the Tourettes syndrome nervous tick of shouting “POLLUTER” every few seconds, hunting for ill will and devious intent toward children and old people from any company over 10 employees, or interjecting the ominous term of – whisper with us in dark, insidious tones – biiiig buuuussineeessss or big fill-in-the-blank for the targeted industry of the week.

      They ran their generators? The good decent people of Quincy (sans those dirty microsoft employees, if any) were victimized by the great satan?


  • Anon says:

    The costs of power are so high now at DCs that companies have a strong incentive to reduce energy use. We’re proactively turning off old equipment and energy consumption/TCO is a major consideration at RFP time. Ultimately cost control will drive behaviour which is beneficial to the environmental issue.

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