NYT’s data center power reports like taking a time machine back to 2006

Facebook data center

The data center industry is seemingly in a frenzy over the negative tone and information left out of the New York Times’ series on data centers and power consumption, which debuted this weekend (part 1 and part 2). There are clearly some important issues left out of the articles so far — namely all of the data center energy efficiency work that the webscale Internet giants like Google and Facebook have done over the past two years — but I still think the series is valuable and can play an important role in shining a spotlight on the large amount of resources that are sometimes quietly consumed by data centers.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, for my own series on data centers and power a couple months ago, and have contemplated many of the things that the New York Times’ reporter must have spent time thinking about (my series from July is here, part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4). The difficulty of tackling this topic is that regular readers have little understanding of how data centers, the electric grid, and power generation works (a point that Michael Manos who was interview for the story also makes here). The NYT’s first piece spends several sentences explaining just what a data center is to the average reader (though, not everyone even likes the article’s basic descriptions).

Workers building out the power lines around Apple’s data center

Massive power usage

The overarching theme of the NYT’s series is that the power and resource usage of data centers that play a huge role supporting our online lives is almost entirely hidden from the end user, and that these data centers consume a ton of energy. This is entirely accurate, and a worthy topic of a NYT series. Low cost and reliable energy is the single most important factor that these data center operators are looking for when choosing a site, gear and even software for a data center, and the amount of power that data centers consume will only go up as more and more services land in the cloud.

Data center operators have also for a long time been very secretive. There’s no denying that. I faced that barrier when trying to report out my series, too — even in 2012.

The sign in front of Google’s data center

Another point of contention for the industry seems to be the extent to which data centers provide employment. The reality is that data centers don’t offer many full time jobs for very many people. About 50 or 60 are employed in each of the country’s largest data centers.

Finally, the mentality of data center operators and equipment makers has for years been that the gear must be powered on at full blast regardless of the massive energy demands, which has led to wasted energy. That mentality also extends to the air conditioners that are commonly turned on at full blast and keeping servers at a much cooler temperature than needed.

Time machine

But the articles, so far, are totally dated. As my headline suggests they sound like the author, who spent over a year reporting out the series, jumped into a time machine and did his reporting a couple years ago. One of the reasons is that both articles so far start with anecdotes from 2006 about Microsoft and Facebook. The data centers that Facebook recently built in Forest City, North Carolina and Prineville, Oregon, are industry pioneers in terms of energy efficiency and openness. Microsoft, too, has more recently pledged to get rid of its diesel generators for its facilities, and has been using less air conditioning in its new data centers.

The data center operators at the largest Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and eBay are so focused on energy efficiency of their newest data centers that new designs are starting to be widely adopted with technologies like open air cooling (getting rid of the huge air conditioning units in these things). New types of low power chips and servers are being developed by startups like SeaMicro, which was recently bought by AMD. The articles so far don’t mention these innovations.

There’s been a rethinking of energy and data centers over the past year and a half, spearheaded by companies like Google, and shared with the world through projects like Facebook’s Open Compute program. Google also decided to embrace openness around its data centers over the past six months. Data center operators are even now just starting to ponder how they can bring in clean power, as is evidenced by Apple’s massive solar farm being built in North Carolina.

One of the reasons I focused my own series on this topic on North Carolina is that it seems like an area that represents how in flux data center operators have been over the past year and a half. In North Carolina, Google came to the area first in 2006, and might have done things differently if its data center there were being built today. At the same time Facebook and Apple’s data centers in North Carolina are on the cutting edge of energy efficiency and clean power (photo above).

Pushing the industry

Beyond these missteps, I feel the same way about the NYT’s series that I do about Greenpeace’s dirty cloud reports. Yeah, they got a few things wrong, but the overall thesis is right, and can be used to make the Internet industry even more conscientious about their carbon emissions and energy footprint.

There are still a few Internet leaders who haven’t publicly embraced energy efficiency and greener technologies for data centers. For example, Amazon and its web services haven’t really stepped up to touting energy efficiency and clean power technologies so far, despite its prominent role in the industry. Though, they have made some strides.

Additionally while the largest and leading Internet companies have widely adopted energy efficiency practices, businesses running their own IT services haven’t adopted these technologies. That’s one of the biggest problems with the article, that the reporter is lumping together businesses’ in house IT server practices, with the webscale cloud giants. But clearly there’s still a lot more work to be done when it comes to the Internet an its massive power consumption.

Here’s my 4-part series on data centers and power:

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