The Cloud Factories - Power, Pollution and the Internet
This is the first article in a series by the New York Times on "The Cloud Factories" and their related environmental / energy issues.
September 22, 2012
ByJames Glanz, NY Times
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jeff Rothschild’s machines at Facebook had
a problem he knew he had to solve immediately. They were about to melt.
The company had been packing a 40-by-60-foot rental space here with
racks of computer servers that were needed to store and process information
from members’ accounts. The electricity pouring into the computers was
overheating Ethernet sockets and other crucial components.
Thinking fast, Mr. Rothschild, the company’s engineering chief, took
some employees on an expedition to buy every fan they could find — “We cleaned
out all of the Walgreens in the area,” he said — to blast cool air at the
equipment and prevent the Web site from going down.
That was in early 2006, when Facebook had a quaint 10 million or so
users and the one main server site. Today, the information generated by nearly
one billion people requires outsize versions of these facilities, called data
centers, with rows and rows of servers spread over hundreds of thousands of
square feet, and all with industrial cooling systems.
They are a mere fraction of the tens of thousands of data centers that
now exist to support the overall explosion of digital information. Stupendous
amounts of data are set in motion each day as, with an innocuous click or tap,
people download movies on iTunes, check credit card balances through Visa’s Web
site, send Yahoo e-mail
with files attached, buy products on Amazon,
post on Twitter or read newspapers online.
A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed 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. 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.
To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of
generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has
increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations,
documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state
government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of
the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.
Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of
electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants,
according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in
the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load, the
“It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to
understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who
helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more
power than a medium-size town.”
Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the
request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed
energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6
percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform
computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in
case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.
A server is a sort of bulked-up desktop computer, minus a screen and
keyboard, that contains chips to process data. The study sampled about 20,000
servers in about 70 large data centers spanning the commercial gamut: drug
companies, military contractors, banks, media companies and government
“This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to be the first to
say mea culpa,” said a senior industry executive who asked not to be identified
to protect his company’s reputation. “If we were a manufacturing industry, we’d
be out of business straightaway.”
These physical realities of data are far from the mythology of the
Internet: where lives are lived in the “virtual” world and all manner of memory
is stored in “the cloud.”
The inefficient use of power is largely driven by a symbiotic
relationship between users who demand an instantaneous response to the click of
a mouse and companies that put their business at risk if they fail to meet that
Even running electricity at full throttle has not been enough to satisfy
the industry. In addition to generators, most large data centers contain banks
of huge, spinning flywheels or thousands of lead-acid batteries — many of them
similar to automobile batteries — to power the computers in case of a grid
failure as brief as a few hundredths of a second, an interruption that could
crash the servers.
“It’s a waste,” said Dennis P. Symanski, a senior researcher at the Electric
Power Research Institute, a nonprofit industry group. “It’s too many
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