Data Centres Set to Overtake The Aviation Industry’s Carbon Footprint

It’s often hard for people outside of the slightly specialised world of distributed computing and data centres to get their heads around quite how critical and complex they have become. So it was a bittersweet moment to find this article in The Economist – Buy our stuff, save the planet. 

Sweet since it certainly serves to put into perspective the dark art of data centre computing. The total number of servers in America is expected to grow to 15.8 million by 2010, already located in 7,000 data centres across the US where the biggest is up to 80,000 servers and the size of many football pitches.

Bitter for the increasingly significant impact on the planet data centre energy usage is having, rising from just over 50 Billion KWh per year to over 150 Bn KWh from 2000 – 2005. Over half of this is used to power servers, and 40% on then keeping them cool enough to operate well…or indeed at all. In America alone according to the Environmental Protection Agency, data centres now account for 1.5% of all electricity consumption, up from 0.6% in 2000 and 1% in 2005. And data centres globally account for more carbon-dioxide emissions annually than Argentina, according to McKinsey and the Uptime Institute. At this rate by 2020 emissions will have quadrupled to 680 m tonnes per annum and will have topped the aviation industry!

So the new key metric is performance-per-watt – and there is plenty of scope to improve it. According to McKinsey and the Uptime Institute, on average one third of servers are idle – and the EPA says deploying the latest kit could cut power consumption in half. In its report it outlines how state-of-the-art efficiency techniques could actually reverse the trend in power consumption over the coming five years. 

However, the people, processes and systems required to drive this forward are seriously lagging behind. The research program on best practices set up by the EPA has only 54 volunteers. The Economist article notes that “In most data centres, administrators do not even know which programs run on which servers. ‘Let’s pull the plug and see who calls’ is not just a joke’”. That makes adoption of more efficient hardware and co-locating software programs on a single box through virtualisation risky, slow and arduous.

To further challenge the data centre strategist and operator, power-efficiency is but one constraint. Consider the location of servers and indeed compute cycles to allow for latency, cooling, power supply, compliance regulations and real estate costs and the truly mind-bending challenge of data centre optimisation begins to become clear. As virtualisation and cloud computing in all its variants really take off, energy consumption and cost may be optimised in the future by moving workloads from one virtualised machine to another… but this will only increase the cost and complexity of managing the applications within these modern-day dark, satanic mills. Without effective IT management software, that is.