The Efficiency Gap: Can Server Huggers Shift to the Cloud?

The Efficiency Gap: Can Server Huggers Shift to the Cloud?

How Green is the Internet? That was the topic for a conference Thursday at Google, which looked at the efficiency gap between huge cloud data centers and in-house corporate data centers.

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Urs Hoelzle, Google's Senior VP for Technical Infrastructure, opens the "How Green is the Internet?" Conference Thursday at Google's campus in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo: Rich Miller)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - How do you further reduce the environmental impact of data centers? Close the growing efficiency gap between the ultra-efficient server farms operated by cloud builders and the energy-wasting IT closets inside server-hugging businesses.

That was the bottom line in a wide-ranging discussion Thursday at "How Green is the Internet," a conference convened by Google to brainstorm ways to reduce the impact of Internet technology on the emission of green house gases.

Data centers got their share of attention, especially when former vice president Al Gore blasted the continuing use of lead acid batteries and diesel generators to provide emergency power to keep servers online. "That really cannot continue," said Gore, the event's keynote speaker.

Focus on Networks, Mobile Devices

But much of the discussion went beyond the data center, focusing on the environmental impact of wireless networks, digital delivery of music and video, and the "rebound effect" in which advances in mobile devices and Internet services may actually boost activities that generate green house gases.

Several speakers said that the data center industry's largest companies have made huge strides in making their facilities more efficient, adopting designs that slash the amount of energy needed to power and cool their servers.

"Large data centers are the easiest part to solve, because their activity is concentrated," said Urs Hoelzle, Senior Vice President of Technical Infrastructure for Google. "Most mid-range and small data centers are not efficient."

Several speakers pointed to this efficiency gap as a way to capture huge energy savings and reduce the industry's green house gas emissions. Eric Masanet, an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University, said that shifting workloads  to cloud platforms could slash corporate data centers' energy impact by up to 85 percent.

"A shift to the cloud, moving from inefficient data centers to highly-efficient data centers, will save a lot of energy," said Masanet.

Best Practices Known, But Not Always Embraced

But while that math works well on paper, it is difficult in the real world.

Jon Koomey, a research fellow at Stanford University's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, said the solutions are known, but not widely implemented.

"There are huge inefficiencies in in-house data centers," said Koomey. "Just adapting best practices will save 50 percent of the energy being used. We know how to do this. The impediments are institutional, not technical."

Hoelzle agreed. "The inefficiency has persisted over decades, so there's not much reason to believe these (in-house data centers) will improve much."

The better solution, Hoelzle argued, was to shut down these inefficient data centers and IT closets and replace them entirely with cloud computing and online services.

"Many startups in Silicon Valley operate entirely on the cloud and online services," said Hoelzle. "They don't want an IT staff."

Does Hybrid Help or Hinder?

That's been a harder sell for corporate users, many of whom are wary of putting data in the cloud because of anxieties about security and compliance issues. To address that concern, many vendors and service providers are focusing on "hybrid" cloud offerings that split infrastructure between the public cloud and in-house data centers - which boosts cloud adoption, but may do little to improve the efficiency of the corporate data center.

Hoelzle says the greatest opportunity for cloud-driven savings will be found among small businesses, who represent roughly a third of total data center usage.

"You'll see most of the replacement happen first on the small business end," said Hoelzle. "You can imagine having no local infrastructure, because you use public cloud and services for everything else. You'll see millions of businesses that have no IT themselves aside from their Internet uplink."

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