It has been a while since I last wrote about Earth day, April 2014 to be exact, and at that time Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, and the NY Times seemed to be on a crusade to vilify data centers. This year, I looked at the eathday.org website and plastic water bottles were the primary focus. So does that mean that data centers are no longer public enemy number one? Well, of course that depends on who you ask.
Since it is now a bit more than 10 years since the Green Grid was founded and the PUE energy efficiency metric was created, perhaps everyone is tired of hearing about it and other subsequent metrics such as WUE and CUE (some of my favorites). And then there are the buzzwords: green, sustainable, and renewable (perhaps we should also consider adding natural, organic, or even low sodium to the list?)
So as I pondered the data center ecosystem on Earth Day, the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, comes to mind, since I am fan of the old Spaghetti Westerns.
The good is the major improvement that most new data centers being built in the last few years have significantly increased facility energy efficiency, and the IT equipment manufacturers are constantly increasing their energy vs. performance ratios.
Moreover, large scale data centers are driving and expanding the production and use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, in partnership with energy producers, by the use of power purchase agreements (PPA). In 2017, even Greenpeace gave favorable ratings to some data center operators for the use of renewable energy in its 102-page “Clicking Clean” report at http://www.clickclean.org/usa/en/.
Green is also referred to as the color of envy (perhaps PUE envy), or green also implies money, so a low PUE coupled with low cost energy becomes a major factor in lower operating costs, which is driving site selection. Like everyone else, we would all like to have lower cost power. This motivation has probably done more to improve the data center than any other aspects of the social politics of “going green,” since it results in more net profit.
Moreover, the long-term goal is to improve the recovery and reuse of the waste heat energy rejected into the environment by data centers. For example, Stockholm Data Parks, along with a power grid provider, are expanding efforts to attract datacenter operations based on a heat recovery marketplace called Open District Heating, which gives credits for waste heat (www.stockholmdataparks.com).
Recycling and eWaste
Another aspect to consider is eWaste and recycling. Most organizations act responsibly regarding proper decommissioning of IT equipment. The majority of servers typically have a three-year “first life” in large scale data centers, and in some cases a percentage of older servers are sold into the used secondary market, while the remainder of the units are recycled for valuable metals and then properly disposed.
The bad is perhaps more difficult to put into perspective in light of the presumed benefits of the digital transformation (DX). Although there does not seem to be any “official” definition of DX, however, an IDC report defines digital transformation “as the continuous process by which enterprises adapt to or drive disruptive changes in their customers and markets (external ecosystem) by leveraging digital competencies to create new business models, products, and services.”
While DX intended to make process and people more productive, does it really benefit mankind to have artificial intelligence (AI) systems listening to everything we say just so it can help you make up your mind about what you should watch on your phone, tablet, or TV? On the other hand, perhaps they may not really be so bad after all since there are benefits, such as free shipping. For instance, what if a drone could deliver paper plates in only 30 minutes, if suddenly you were thinking about having some friends over at the last minute? Which brings me to Jevons Paradox. According to Wikipedia, in 1865, the English economist, William Stanley Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal-use led to the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that contrary to common intuition, technological progress could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption. At that time, it was that burning coal more efficiently resulted in greater coal being burned.
While it predates computers, its underlying premise continues to be true as “technology” makes a process or product more efficient, resulting in a lower cost per unit. Yet the result is the same, Jevons Pardox still holds; instead of using the same or less of “something,” people use more because it is more affordable. Case in point, bandwidth. I just finished clearing out some old files in my office (yes, they were paper), and found some vendor quotes for a T-1 data line from a major internet provider, circa 1998. The price was $1,500 month. Now for those of you who may not be familiar with such antiquated communication technology, a T-1 circuit is 1.44 megabits per second (0.0015 Gbits/s). At the time, this would normally provide satisfactory internet service to a fairly large office with hundreds of users. Needless to say, that is far less bandwidth than today’s lowest cost wireless data plans. Nonetheless, with expected widespread rollout of 5G just around the corner, consumers will use even more bandwidth for their mobile devices to watch streaming content, as well as to create, send, store their own high-definition video content in the provider’s cloud, and of course post and share it across multiple social media platforms. Sounds like Jevons Paradox to me.
This of course is one the main reasons that social media and streaming content providers keep building more and larger data centers. Moreover, this also is one of the factors driving the move toward the edge data centers. In relation to Earth Day, this begs the underlying question, what is the energy-environmental impact of a 45-minute 4K HD video of someone’s cat sitting on a couch playing with a ball of yarn, which suddenly goes viral for two days and gets watched 2 million times? This also then justifies the need to increase content server and bandwidth capacity, as well as edge distribution nodes because the video demand peaked over two days and then was quickly forgotten.
And finally there is the ugly: crypto-mining. While, setting aside the question of the economics of crypto-currency, I am in favor of free market entrepreneurship and capitalism, but I find that in some cases crypto-miners “virtually” have the same ecological impact as coal strip mining, literally burning tires to make bitcoins.
According to a December 2017 article in Fast Company, burning trash to generate the electricity for crypto mining is another idea. Standard American Mining, a miner, has teamed up with tire-to-electricity specialists PRTI and created the world’s first waste-to-energy crypto mine. This means it’s taking power generated from burning up old tires and using it to mine bitcoin. “The defensible advantage is in vertically integrating mines with nontraditional, near-zero cost energy sources,” says managing partner Anthony Pompliano, the fund behind Standard American Mining, in a blog post stated, “It will become the Standard Oil of the computing industry.” (Yes, this is real)
Moreover, in contrast to IT equipment lifecycles in most other types of data centers, crypto miners use “mining rigs” which may only have an effective operating life of six months before a faster model comes out, reducing the old models ability to cost-effectively compete for crypto-coins. This six-month functional obsolesce generates far more eWaste than other IT equipment refresh cycles. Moreover, unlike traditional organizations many crypto-miners jump in and go out of business and may just dump or simply abandon their old mining rigs without any effort to properly dispose of them.
Like everyone else, we would all like access to lower cost power. However if you are a bit-coin miner, you may not really care about environmental impact, as long as you can find cheap power. Case in point, consider burning tires.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While burning tires is far from an ideal energy source, most crypto-miners just want low cost power wherever they can find it, and with little regard to the impact on local residents. In this case, it is low cost hydro-power in upstate NY. As I write this in mid-March, the city of Plattsburg, NY has just passed a local law which declared an 18-month moratorium on any new commercial crypto-mining facilities. This moratorium was triggered in response to a significant cost increase to Plattsburg’s existing traditional customers, due to the high demand for low cost hydro power by crypto-miner companies operating there.
This may be the first of many legislative efforts to curb energy demand of wild-cat crypto-miners. In conjunction with the Plattsburg moratorium, a few days later, the NY State Public Service Commission issued a ruling that crypto-currency companies were having a negative impact on local power supplies. The ruling further stated that besides Plattsburg, in recent months, several municipal power authorities have seen an increase in requests for new service from new commercial customers for disproportionately large amounts of power.
So while we all love to have the latest and fastest technology, take a moment on Earth Day to think about what we can all do to improve the benefits of technology while trying to minimize the environmental impact.
For a look back, here is my 2014 Earth Day column: https://www.missioncriticalmagazine.com/articles/86395-earth-day-and-the-data-center