A week has passed since The New York Times’s explosive piece on data centers and their apparent—or not so apparent—harmful effects on the environment.
Since we last wrote about this story of the dark side of data, members of the tech media and industry have been quick to point out several flaws in The Gray Lady’s series. The article uses Google, Facebook, and Amazon as examples of modern high-tech companies reliant on giant digital warehouses designed to manage data.
Charles Babcock, the editor-at-large of InformationWeek, claims that the Times’s account of how data is managed is based on the way companies used to manage data in the 1980s and 1990s. Babcock says that data centers created by the industry’s current big players are now running more efficiently than ever, if you gauge them by the power usage effectiveness ratio (PUE), which measures the energy efficiency of a data center.
The 1990s data center, with air conditioning pouring through a raised floor, and featuring a water-cooled mainframe at the center, had a PUE of 1.92 to 2. That means it consumed about twice as much power as the amount used in actual computing; cooling was the largest power consumer after computing itself.
Today, modern data centers built by Microsoft, Google, Facebook, or Yahoo have reduced that ratio to somewhere between 1.22 and 1.07—the latter mark set by Facebook's new Prineville, Ore., facility. This type of modern data center does so by delaying the stepping down of power line voltage until it's close to where servers and switches are running; that reduces the loss to resistance in the line.
Babcock wasn’t alone in striking back at the Times piece. Over at Forbes, Dan Woods wrote that the Times unfairly lumped IT operations in with data management, thus wrongly attributing energy waste to companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Additionally, Babcock takes note of the fact that the Times made no mention of VMware in regards to virtualization and how this technology benefits energy efficiency. To be fair, I don’t believe the Times is obligated to include a mandatory reference to any particular company, and the series itself is still not finished as of this writing. Perhaps we might see some more Times’ stories in the near future that cover this theme familiar to all of you readers.
Although the Times’s article has received its fair share of naysayers, it’s hard to argue against its main point: All of this new technology comes at a price, and the general public’s thirst for a constant stream of information is not without consequences.
I’ll leave you with Mashable’s Chris Taylor who humorously sums up the general public’s understanding of the cloud:
Ultimately, of course, these centers only exist to feed a consumer need. But that consumer need, in turn, is being fed by the notion of the cloud—which, if we think of it at all, sounds like an airy, magical place. It stores everything and delivers everything, and we don’t need to worry too much about how the sausage gets made.
Jonathan Vanian is an online editor who edits, writes, interviews, and helps turn the many cranks at StickyMinds, TechWell, Agile Journal, and CM Crossroads. He has worked for newspapers, websites, and a magazine, and is not as scared of the demise of the written word as others may appear to be. Software and high technology never cease to amaze him.