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For Truly Green IT, We Need Truly Clean Data Centers

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The news around data centers this week was all about Green IT – how clean are data centers today, and how clean can we realistically afford to make them? Heck, the Department of Energy even awarded $47 million to projects targeting data-center efficiency. Let’s hope these projects produce usable technologies, because across the data center universe at large, it seems the most we can expect is for operators to emit less via energy-efficient hardware and software (Ed. Note: Cassatt’s technology now belongs to CA, and Oracle acquired Virtual Iron.). Clean energy–powered data centers will have to wait for another day.

A big reason for the focus on energy efficiency over renewable energy is that many data center operators are more concerned with saving money than with saving the planet (except Google, whose altruism allegedly led it to spin off its own energy subsidiary). Under such cost-cutting pressures, tactics like server consolidation through virtualization, analytical software like the peddled by Rackwise and lower-power gear are easier sales because their relatively low implementation costs mean faster ROI. Companies also might consider environmental factors, such as raising data center temperatures instead of pushing for constantly cool server rooms. To the contrary, a recent case study from Emerson shows its roof-mounted solar array will take 20 years to pay for itself, while producing only 16 percent of the data center’s power.

Even cloud-computing providers are not immune to these economic concerns. Increasingly, industry watchers (including some of the cloud’s biggest supporters) are wondering just how green the cloud actually is. The reality, it seems, is that unless cloud data centers are strategically located to harness cleaner energy sources (a la Google), they, too rely primarily on increased utilization (i.e., doing more work with less servers) to decrease carbon emissions. Unfortunately, as our collective demand for computing resources increases, even the most efficiently built data centers with the highest utilization rates serve only to mitigate, rather than eliminate, harmful emissions.

If the government really is concerned about climate change, now appears to be the right time to incentivize the building of truly clean data centers. Twenty years to achieve payback is too long to change many profit-oriented minds, but tax credits or customized government loans that let companies reap clean-energy savings immediately could make a real difference. When the time comes for the government to get reimbursed for any loans or credits, data centers should be profit centers rather than cost centers, so payback won’t be so burdensome. Additionally, it’s inevitable that the data-center proliferation will continue, so why not let the green economy grow along with it, ultimately resulting in two substantial tax bases and a cleaner environment?

Question of the week

Are energy concerns misplaced on efficiency rather than on clean sources?