The New York Times Blasts “Cloud Factories” on Energy Use

It is telling that the New York Times, in today’s front-page story about the data center industry and its energy usage, begins with an anecdote from 2006. The Times describes a moment when Facebook engineers had to race to local retail stores to buy fans to prevent its servers from overheating.

It’s the kind of anecdote most people in the industry have heard – but not in the last five years. In its story, which kicks off a series of articles on the Web’s infrastructure, the Times has offered a tough indictment of the data center industry and its energy use and environmental impact. The story’s tone is reflected in its headline: “Power, Pollution and the Internet: Industry Wastes Vast Amounts of Electricity, Belying Image.”

In depicting data centers as wasteful polluters, the Times has raised many valid points, including the low server utilization rates in many facilities, the industry’s slow adoption of some efficiency technologies (like tools that turn servers on and off), and the need to be accountable for environmental permitting of diesel generators. But in its first installment, the Times does an artful, fact-laden job of telling half the story.

What’s missing is the narrative of how the industry has responded to the challenge of its inefficiency and environmental stewardship. The last five years have seen dramatic changes in the way the largest data centers are designed and operated, as companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft have vastly improved the energy efficiency of their server farms by overhauling their power distribution systems, using fresh air instead of power-hungry chillers (“free cooling”) to cool their servers, and running their facilities at warmer temperatures. New design schemes for modular data centers have emerged, offering  highly-efficient designs to customers with smaller operations than Google or Facebook.  And we’re even seeing a growing focus on renewable energy, highlighted by Apple’s massive commitment to on-site solar energy and landfill-powered fuel cells.

Instead, the Times says that “this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.

“Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show,” writes the Times’ James Glanz. “Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.”

That’s true of some data centers, but not the large-scale “cloud factories” that are the focus of the Times’ story. The other side of the story is out there – at Data Center Knowledge, we’ve spent the past seven years documenting the industry’s energy challenges and its response. It will be interesting to see if the remainder of the Times’ series does a better job documenting the industry’s intensive efforts to address its energy and sustainability issues, or retains the focus and tenor of the first installment. To its credit, the Times has included views from a number of industry sources in a related feature in the opinion  section.

Given the Times’ influence, it’s important for the data center industry to be aware of this series and conversant in the issues it is raising. What did you think of the Times’ story? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Nick

    Whoever wrote this Times article is talking out of his ass.

  2. Ed

    I read it twice I was so confused. Is the suggestion to eliminate all redundancy? Should I stop testing the generator? Should I move my cloud into another cloud that is doing the same thing?

  3. The purpose of the article was not to suggest a solution. It is, quite simply, an anti-technology troll.

  4. Jonathan

    I didn’t spend much time reading after the first paragraph where Glanz stated “The electricity pouring into the computers was overheating Ethernet sockets…”. In my entire career in the IT industry, I’ve never seen an Ethernet socket overheat. CPUs are usually the first to go, and will shut down a machine way before melting. Was this first statement by Glanz a quote from Facebook’s Rothschild, or simply a factually inaccurate opening paragraph designed by a liberal writer to lure a liberal audience into a half-true environmentally-stereotyped article. I agree with Miller. There are some truths here -- maybe half, if you’re generous -- but they completely sidestep the fact that the industry has improved in significant ways since 2006. The whole concept of cloud, primarily driven by virtualization, is a key testament to the industry’s desire to improve density and efficiency.

  5. Jason

    This article goes to show you what the general public view the "black box" environment of data centers. As they have no idea of the inner workings of these mystical computer rooms - they assume that all is bad and any bit of information they get - they spin it into a rant of New York Times proportions. Yes, data centers are big and power hungry. As more people move their services to the cloud, you're also shifting and centralizing these resource consumptions. How hard is it to envision tens of thousands of schools shutting down their 1, 2, 6 servers dedicated to email - and shifting it to a Google data center? The school no longer needs to be on the hook for power, cooling, network, updates, etc etc... Google is and they need a server or two to handle it. Come on New York Times... this is drivel and the fact it made it to the front page shows me your editorial staff is full of Luddites that would liken the data center industry to 19th century textile factories. Grown up and do your research.

  6. Michele Horaney

    Actually, I think most people don't even THINK about how it all works but know it does, it's fun, it's relatively cheap, they get what they want -- the phone service, the computer service -- and that's it. As if we get power out of thin air without a cost to air or water or soil or people or any other resource. Same with cars and the beautiful promise of electric cars. Unless the power comes from the sun for all of these tools/devices/technologies (which would be terrific), then something is being burned somewhere to bring the power to your car, your computer, your phone, your, well, you know the rest.

  7. The article misses that the cloud allows upgrades to equipment without taking customers’ applications down, allowing further improvements. Virtualization leader VMWare (of which AiNET is a partner) shows significant savings and uptake from progressive well run businesses looking to their data center operations as critical to their operation. With AiNET technology, we can do what is call High Availability and Fault Tolerance. But even without super-advanced technology, using the basic technology allows you to stay up longer by not having to go down for routine things… like the hard drive failed in your machine or the machine just got old. You can move your applications around without worrying about the actual hardware (the server) anymore. That’s a game changer…. Deepak Jain, CEO, AiNET