Greenpeace in the Data Center

Nicholas Carr: Environmentalists will mobilize to address the enormous power usage by data centers. Washington is watching as well.

Nicholas Carr has a lengthy essay on data centers and power, in which he deftly punctures some of the basic assumptions of George Gilder's recent Wired article. After reflecting on the energy inefficiency of today's IT infrastructure, Carr makes a prediction that merits attention:

Environmental activists have, in recent years, pressured PC makers to take responsibility for recycling their machines. But they have yet to focus on the way information technology is used. As soon as activists, and the public in general, begin to understand how much electricity is wasted by computing and communication systems - and the consequences of that waste for the environment and in particular global warming - they'll begin demanding that the makers and users of information technology improve efficiency dramatically. Greenpeace and its rainbow warriors will soon storm the data center - your data center.

We recently noted the extraordinary power usage expected from the three data center projects in the Quincy/Wenatchee area (Microsoft, Yahoo, Sabey), which will only increase if Intuit locates a facility there. The numbers are eye opening, and awareness of the issue is spreading beyond the data center.


The issue is starting to get noticed in Washington, where the House passed a bill that would have the federal Environmental Protection Agency review the issues surrounding power consumption in data center. It doesn't appear that there's been action on the Senate version of the bill. One of three sponsors, Virginia Sen. George Allen, will apparently not be returning. But the other two co-sponsors Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Barbara Boxer, retain their seats.

Will the IT industry effectively address the data center power issue before Washington seeks to legislate? The notion of regulatory interest should be a motivator, but also an opportunity, as Carr notes:

As the economic and political costs of client-server computing grow, the shift to more efficient computing systems will accelerate. That's not only going to change the nature of IT investment and management, it's going to change the IT industry. Who will the winners be? We can't know for sure, but some companies are well positioned to reap benefits from the change. There are, for instance, a handful of traditional suppliers - Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and AMD, among them - that have made energy efficiency a priority. That gives them a technical and marketing advantage that they may be able to sustain.