Internet Backbone Can Be Made More Sustainable
July 20, 2013

Towards A Greener, More Sustainable Data Center

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Google Earth might help you virtually visit faraway places, but how is using it affecting the actual planet?

According to a new report in Nature Climate Change from three American researchers, some big data centers that run programs like Google Earth could cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 88 percent through converting to readily available equipment and better energy management strategies.

Data center emissions are determined by three factors: the IT equipment efficiency, electricity use for non-computing functions and the use, if any, of renewable or low-carbon sources.

"Of these three, improving the efficiency of the IT devices is overwhelmingly the most important," said report co-author Jonathan Koomey, a Stanford University computing expert who identified a long-term trend in energy-efficiency of computing that has been dubbed Koomey's Law.

According to Koomey, the processors in most data centers use 3 percent to 5 percent of their maximum capacity. These server farms can take simple steps like server virtualization to increase utilization to as high as 80 percent in some cases.

Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay and Expedia have instituted most or all of Koomey's recommended changes - partially attributed to pressure from environmental organizations.

"These companies were hearing a lot of noise from Greenpeace and others. Apple went 100 percent renewable so they didn't have to hear about it, and with their high margins, they could afford to do that," Koomey said. "Electricity is a major cost for these companies, and in many of the countries where they operate, carbon emissions have a cost, or soon will."

The new report said many major media companies, airlines, government and universities are generating large volumes of data and still not following the best recommended practices.

"Pretty much every organization whose main job is not computing has done a poor job of improving efficiency," said co-author Eric Masanet of Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering. "Some have made progress, but nowhere near what's possible. Most can't even tell you how many servers they have, let alone the servers' utilization."

The report said a lack of centralization by many of these IT players prevents them from potential optimization. The authors also cited a lack of incentive for decision-makers.

"The utilities and IT departments have separate budgets, and neither operates with the goal of saving the company money overall," Koomey said. "The IT people don't care about putting in an efficient server, because they don't pay the electric bill. Once you fix the institutional problems, then the company can move quickly, because the needed equipment is off-the-shelf and the energy management practices are well understood."

Koomey noted that this problem of separation can even be found in the typical home.

"Who designs and builds your cable box? The cable company. Who pays the electric bill? You do," said Koomey. "So, you end up with a cat warmer on your shelf."

The report also noted that the media and policymakers tend to place too much emphasis on renewable energy when it comes to reducing emissions from IT.

"For data centers, as for all uses of energy, efficiency is always the first thing to do. It's cheapest and allows you to get more mileage out of your equipment," Masanet said.