John Sheputis is CEO of Fortune Data Centers, which operates facilities in San Jose, Calif. and Portland, Oregon. He has founded and managed several Silicon Valley ventures, notably as the COO and co-founder of Totality, now a unit of Verizon Business.
Fortune Data Centers
Open discussion is a good thing. The recent New York Times article “Power, Pollution and the Internet” will force the industry to more openly discuss the topic of environmental responsibility for both consumers and corporations.
On the whole, the IT sector should welcome more discussion regarding energy use and data center efficiency. I believe the industry has made significant progress — and will continue to do so. If I concluded anything right now, it would be that the IT sector hasn’t been effective in sharing this story. It is not the first time nor will it be the last time the IT sector fails to market or explain itself well to the wider public.
Having said that, while the Times author James Glanz makes several good points, namely that data centers consume a lot of power and there are opportunities to be more efficient, I don’t believe this article meets the standard of “All the News That’s Fit to Print (or Click).” The article simply omits too much. While Glanz spoke to many people in the industry, including me, the selected anecdotes he shared look more like a report by someone choosing to see what they want to believe.
Looking at Causation
To be fair, there is no dispute that data centers and IT in general are guilty of consuming vast quantities of power. On this matter, the author was successful. The over-reach that reduces credibility was the failure to report why this is happening. The underlying cause for more IT energy consumption isn’t a conspiracy of vile ecological intent; it is a response to wide-scale IT adoption and consumer choice. In a word, it’s due to demand.
Ignoring the cause and effect that drives technology consumption runs the risk of sounding like the Luddites who destroyed mechanical looms with the hope of getting industrial revolution era-consumers to demand more hand-woven textiles. In sum, that approach didn’t work.
Another defect in the article’s presentation is arriving at a premature conclusion regarding “waste.” The analysis was of IT/data centers as isolated sources of consumption, versus a replacement of some other form of consumption.
When making a value judgment about “waste” of an action or method, a responsible assessment should consider the possible alternatives. One question I would ask the author: “Of the people who read your article online–and contributed to the data center pollution–would it have been better or worse for the environment had these same people read the print edition, considering the trips to a newsstand, truck deliveries, harvested trees, and manufactured rolls of paper?” Clicking on a link to acquire news seems environmentally benign by comparison.
Efficiency is Growing
The author also pointed out that data centers could be more efficient. I couldn’t agree more. The other responses to the article pointed out the many ways IT services and data centers have and will continue to become more efficient. There are many natural incentives to do so. Power is a critical resource and it is expensive. No one designs a server as a replacement for a space heater. Most engineers abhor waste. And the accountants at IT firms don’t like it either.
This might explain why, for the last several decades, every new generation of IT device is more efficient. New CPUs have greater capacity. New chips process more information. New switches push more bits per second through fiber. And believe it or not, today’s devices consume less power per unit of computing or storage than their predecessors. However, net power consumption goes up to meet the ever increasing demands of today’s consumers and corporations. Most of it is for good use, and that trend is unlikely to change.
Faulting today’s community of data centers for their collective power use is not unlike faulting the community of 2 million+ U.S. owners of a Toyota Prius for their gas consumption. I suppose we could tell everyone to stay home. Good luck with that.
Within the world of IT suppliers, the expectation of better efficiency is taken for granted. But so is better performance. Can you imagine a new iPhone that touted a shorter battery life? Slower response time? Less memory? Or one that supported fewer applications?
Evolution of the Data Center
Many new data centers are much more efficient than the ones they replace. Every equipment and device vendor for the data center segment now touts improved efficiency in their product marketing. This isn’t hype: It’s physics and economics. One way to make big IT more efficient has been scale. The new data centers, the “cloud factories” built with the latest equipment generation, happen to be bigger–which unfortunately makes them easy targets. But not if you consider the consumption they replaced.
The IT sector will have to get used to the attention, as going back to the good ol’ days isn’t likely. And I doubt anyone would like it.
Speaking on behalf of my company and many more within the IT sector, we welcome the opportunity to discuss the full story of IT and environmental responsibility.
We should use the attention to foster even more progress, with broader support, and at a faster rate. That way, everyone wins.
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