10 innovators changing the game for Internet infrastructure

The Researcher: Jonathan Koomey, Consulting Professor, Stanford

by Katie Fehrenbacher

Internet companies are awfully secretive about their data centers. That’s partly for competitive reasons and partly for security reasons, but what it boils down to is the fact that getting information and hard data about data center infrastructure costs, energy consumption and resource use is surprisingly difficult.

That’s one reason we wanted to highlight data center energy and efficiency researcher Jonathan Koomey, who is a consulting professor with Stanford (among other roles) and has been digging into this type of data for years. Long before Greenpeace started writing reports on Apple’s data center energy choices, Koomey has been unearthing difficult-to-find information about energy and efficiency trends for IT companies.

About a year ago, Koomey was one of the first to publish accurate estimates for how many servers and how much electricity Google uses, and how energy-efficient its custom-made servers are. Shortly after Koomey published that report, Google revealed the actual information for its energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Koomey’s been tracking overall U.S. and global data center energy consumption for years, and surprised many last year when he noted that the growth in data center energy consumption was actually lower than anticipated. That was a silver lining of the recession as well as a trend of data center operators embracing energy efficiency measures.

Koomey has had such an influence on the industry that there’s now a law attributed to him. “Koomey’s Law” (Koomey doesn’t call it that himself, but others do) that states that the electrical efficiency of computing — the number of computations that can be completed per kilowatt-hour of electricity used — has doubled every year and a half since the beginning of computing.

In the latest turn in his career, Koomey is focused on entrepreneurs, startups and the innovation that could be unleashed by the intersection of energy and IT. He published a book in February called Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs, in which he laid out advice for greentech entrepreneurs and detailed ways that IT and analytics can tackle climate change. This summer he plans to start visiting companies in this so-called “ET meets IT” (energy technology meets information technology) space like mobile sensor companies and robotics firms.

But, Koomey isn’t giving up his data center energy efficiency work, and he tells me in an interview that there’s still a whole lot more work to be done. The near-term task should be getting CIOs and CFOs to realize the energy inefficiencies in their infrastructure, says Koomey. This can be accomplished by better measurement, better ways to incentivize energy efficiency choices for companies, and fixing company organizational issues that prevent energy efficiency decisions. He hopes one day to write a book that can act as the quintessential guide to help C-level IT execs make their data centers as energy efficient as possible.

Energy is one of the top three things that data center operators are thinking about as they build more data centers across the globe, says Koomey. And it’s not just about using the lowest cost energy possible, but about investigating ways to incorporate clean power into the mix, too. If energy is not at the top of mind of these decision makers at this point, I’d be very worried, says Koomey.