Why big data is going green

EMC's Durham Cloud Data Center, North Carolina. Photos courtesy of Symmes Maini & McKee Associates
EMC's Durham Cloud Data Center, North Carolina. Photos courtesy of Symmes Maini & McKee Associates

The “digital universe” is very similar to the physical universe in its construction. There’s the matter we can easily see: computers, mobile phones, television screens and software. But behind every text message, embedded video, streaming song or recorded television show lays a vast network of data unseen by the physical eye. It’s like the “dark matter” that scientists believe makes up most of space. The digital universe, coined by the consulting firm IDC, is expanding at an astonishing rate. The firm’s latest estimates show a 300 per cent increase in data creation by the end of the decade – growing from 1.3 trillion gigabytes to 40 trillion gigabytes.

“The digital universe astronauts among us – the chief information officers, data scientists, digital entrepreneurs – already know the value that can be found in this ever-expanding collection of digital bits,” IDC optimistically concludes in its analysis of the sector.

But back on terra firma, the expansion of the digital universe also means concurrent growth in the energy-intensive hardware needed to support it. Between now and 2020, IDC projects that global IT infrastructure will grow by 40 per cent. The result is growing demand for energy services that are still largely supplied by finite, polluting fossil fuels.

This creates new challenges for data centre operators and IT service providers seeking to reduce the environmental impact of their operations. Consequently, it also means there’s a lot of economic value to capture as the worldwide market for data centre infrastructure management services balloons from just over US$660 million today to $4.5 billion in 2020, according to Navigant Research.

The big question is whether the entire industry – not just the biggest and most public IT firms – will realize that environmental value.

Over the last decade, the data centre industry has begun a steady transition toward reducing energy use in buildings through smarter design and improvements to equipment performance. Driven by pressure from environmental groups, corporate sustainability goals and steady advances in hardware, the biggest tech firms are now embedding sustainability into their practices. The transition accelerated after the Environmental Protection Agency reported a doubling of energy consumption among U.S. data centres between 2000 and 2006, creating more public awareness about the industry’s growing impact.

The most prominent shift has come from corporations like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, which have all built ultra-efficient data centres powered with renewable energy to green their images. The public might reasonably assume that this is where the entire data centre industry is headed. But these firms are outliers in the industry, not the norm.

“For the companies building highly visible data centres, you see a lot of movement,” said Jonathan Koomey, a Stanford University professor who analyses the IT sector’s energy use. “But smaller data centres are not getting on board in the same way.”

The problem, said Koomey, is not technical – it’s structural. The vast majority of data centres are owned by smaller companies with little budget for improving energy performance. They also have no public pressure to improve their facilities as well as conflicting management roles. As a result, they waste a lot of energy.

“Most companies can’t even tell you how many computer servers they have,” said Koomey. “The IT department buys the hardware, finance pays for the energy bills and no one talks to each other. These are institutional problems that need to be fixed.”

Relative to other sectors of the economy, data centres don’t use an overwhelming amount of electricity. The industry accounts for around 2 per cent of electricity consumption in the U.S. and about 1.5 per cent globally. In comparison, the U.S. manufacturing sector uses 30 per cent of total energy. However, the amount of waste in the IT sector is staggering. According to a McKinsey & Company analysis compiled for the New York Times, only 6 to 12 per cent of electricity consumed by data centres is actually used for computing. The rest goes to cooling equipment and keeping servers running in case of an unexpected spike in demand.

To reverse that abysmal statistic, the most effective solution for the vast majority of the industry isn’t to build out fancy new data centres; it’s to better use the infrastructure already in place. In many cases, however, that can be just as difficult.

“In this business, no one gets fired for wasting energy. But you do get fired for making a change that causes a server outage,” said Mark Housley, chief executive of Vigilent, a California-based energy management company focused on controlling “mission critical cooling” in data centres.

Founded a decade ago as an intelligent HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) company for commercial buildings, Vigilent has narrowed its focus mostly to data centres, where cooling systems are often run at full blast to protect servers from overheating, even when they’re not needed.

By installing a network of sensors that measure temperature, humidity and pressure, Vigilent can dynamically adjust cooling using its software dashboard. Housley said the company is shutting down 40 per cent of air conditioners on average across its portfolio of 200 facilities by adding intelligence to “Neanderthal” controls systems.

“Operators don’t even know which systems to turn off. We figure out which air conditioners are needed for a given IT load, and always find that balance,” said Housley. In one data centre, Vigilent was able to reduce cooling loads by 70 per cent by shutting down excessive cooling.

Canada’s second biggest telecom company, Telus, saw similarly striking improvements to its energy use after installing Vigilent’s system at its data centres. Telus’s first integration brought 1 gigawatt-hour of savings at a data centre in the first year, reaping $100,000 in savings and enabling a payback on investment of 18 months. After that, Telus was hooked. The company has continued retrofitting its Canadian data centres with the system, and in June of last year, it made an undisclosed venture investment in Vigilent.

Vigilent’s success has taken a long time to materialize. Educating and winning new customers is very difficult work, said Housley, who calls himself an “old Silicon Valley guy” accustomed to quick turnaround for products. In the data centre world, change to critical systems comes incrementally. Fears about equipment failures are the main reason, but finite capital and skepticism about the “crappy ROI of sustainability investments” are also big factors, he said. However, momentum is accelerating as more products get into the market and data centre operators gain experience.

“The market is very slow to change, it’s still a pretty conservative industry. Data centre managers don’t want to take any risk,” said Housley. “But the conversations are getting much shorter than they used to be. Now we have customers that can tell the story.”

For some data centre operators, telling that sustainability story is vital to educating the rest of the industry on what’s possible.EMC, a Massachusetts-based storage and cloud services company, has made sustainability the central focus in its data centre design. Unlike most of the industry, EMC has created an integrated decision-making process that ties together energy budgeting, IT purchases, facilities management and sustainability goals so that all areas of the business are working toward the same goals.

“A lot of companies have no aligned interests between the IT side and the facilities management side,” said Kathrin Winkler, EMC’s chief sustainability officer. “You need to build in 21st century collaboration to actually measure your impact.”

In its latest sustainability report, the company said it had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent since 2005, largely through better use of IT equipment and retrofitting facilities with efficient energy systems. EMC’s newest data centre, completed last year in Durham, North Carolina, recently achieved a LEED gold certification for its integration of free air-cooling, rooftop water collection and a flywheel battery for uninterruptible power supply.

The cumulative impact has been a 34 per cent reduction in energy use and 78 per cent reduction in potable water consumption compared to the average data centre. The company has achieved a gold rating at four other data centres around the world implementing similar technologies.

EMC has branded itself very heavily around its approach to sustainable data centre design, releasing detailed data on its energy consumption and putting Winkler – its leading voice on the environment – front and centre publicly. But Winkler admits there is a disparity between what a bigger company like EMC can do and what the majority of the industry is capable of. To address this challenge, the company has focused increasingly on “infrastructure-as-a-service,” which allows enterprises to use EMC’s existing resources in the cloud. This approach is becoming standard in the industry, and allows bigger firms with more resources for energy efficient design to pass the benefits along to customers.

“The problem is that there’s a large number of much smaller data centres, and the ROI in those facilities can be relatively small,” said Winkler. “As we incorporate infrastructure-as-a-service, that can help achieve economies of scale.”

Most data centre operators still have a lot of inefficiencies to tackle. But there’s no doubt that the industry has started transforming itself. Since 2008, due to the combination of an economic slowdown, better data centre design and better utilization of IT equipment, growth of electricity consumption in the sector has been far below earlier projections from the Environmental Protection Agency. Koomey said the trend was promising, and that meaningful changes are taking place.

 “This is not an overwhelming thing,” said Koomey. “But it comes back to management issues. If you’re not tying the sustainability metric to the rest of your business, you’re not going to end up with sustainable changes.

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