If you have not already heard about it, the New York Times published a tell-all exposé about the evils of the data center industry.  The “Dirty Secrets” quote was attributed to a data center industry expert who wanted to remain anonymous.

I am clearly not the first, and certainly not the last person in the data center industry to comment on the September 23rd New York Times article entitled “Power, Pollution and the Internet”.  Typically “Dirty Secrets” stories which make the front page of the Sunday New York Times are usually reserved for high crimes of national or global proportions.  The “holier than thou” tone of the article seems to portray the data center industry in the same light as the tobacco industry, when they originally tried to suppress the connection between smoking and cancer.

Rather than just going though a laundry list of criticisms or rebuttals to the myriad of “facts” that were presented as evidence of the sins of the data center industry, I want to step back a bit.  The article seems to cover a long period of “investigative reporting”, going back to at least 2006 when Jeff Rothschild of Facebook was quoted as having to urgently purchase consumer type fans at all the Walgreens in the area  to prevent his computers’ Ethernet ports from overheating from “all the electricity from pouring into his computers”. 

So in stepping back, let us give the author, James Glanz, the benefit of the doubt, since he obviously is not technically familiar with the inner working of computer hardware and data center technical issues and grant him literary license and allow him his colorful descriptions such as electricity pouring into melting computers.

He even quoted well respected industry experts such as Peter Gross stating “A single data center can take more power than a medium size town” to help bolster his indictment of the industry as an environmental blight on human existence. While the quote is true in and of itself (within limits), I wonder if Peter Gross knew how his quote was going to be used.

The article cites that back in early 2006, Facebook had approximately 10 million users that it was able to support from a 40 by 60 foot rented space tightly packed with computers (even though were about to melt). Fast forward six years to 2012 and he again references Facebook as currently consuming “60 million watts”. It begs the question; were they more efficient in 2006 when they were able to serve 10 million users with a 2400 sq. ft data center, just using servers and processors 3-4 generations back?

The Times proclaims to have engaged McKinsey & Co since 2008, as part of its long range deep investigative report into the hidden crimes of the data center industry.  I wonder if this is connected with the realization that the print industry was being decimated and the future of conventional publishing was made dark by the rising popularity of the internet and mobile data.  In point of fact, the article does give passing mention that direct comparisons of print to Internet information distribution are difficult. 

However, if the NY Times is so concerned with energy efficiency, why didn’t they do a detailed analysis or make mention how much energy and environmental impact it takes to publish a daily paper?  How many trees were cut down to make the newsprint? How much and what chemicals were used to make the ink, how much energy to run the presses? Moreover, how much fuel was burned and greenhouse gases produced by the cars and trucks that deliverer the newspaper to the newsstands and homes. And lastly, how much energy was used to pick-up and recycle the millions of tons of newspaper that is discarded every day? In fact, the Sunday Edition of the NY Times that contained the article almost weighed 3 lbs and you know where it will go.  One also wonders how energy efficient the NY Times own data centers are that hold all their data, as well as those that host NYTimes.com.

In fairness, many of the statements made by those who were quoted, and some of the examples given, do represent some of the inefficient ways the data center industry operated in the past and in many cases, continues to operate.  Conversely, as in the case of enterprise and financial organizations’ business decisions, such as those regarding risk of failure vs higher redundancy levels (which can negatively impact energy efficiency), are a common practice, are not fairly addressed in the article. 

As an example, presumably of “wastefulness” by implication, this next quote was posted immediately after a paragraph expounding on the fact that data centers used thousand of batteries or “banks of huge spinning flywheels” in addition to generators, to prevent minor utility interruptions or failures from crashing servers; taken the article:

“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 insurance policies.”

The Bottom Line

The article does mention, but does not really lay blame on the underlying fact that it is ultimately the consumer who demands more data (and also demands it instantly, in the form and music and video), that has driven the need for more, bigger, faster mega-sized data centers, ala Google, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, etc., again taken from the article:

“If you tell somebody they can’t access YouTube or download from Netflix, they’ll tell you it’s a God-given right,” said Bruce Taylor, vice president of the Uptime Institute, a professional organization for companies that use data centers.

So is this really no different than the fact that many consumers still want and purchase Trucks, SUVs and other large heavy vehicles for personal use to go to the mall, even though they are not very fuel efficient compared to smaller, lighter more fuel efficient vehicles, even today (much less in the same 2006 – 2012 period that the article covers).

Clearly, the article does not paint a fair picture and I am sure that many in the data center industry will be offend and incensed by the article. Nonetheless, while there have been more discussions and focus on energy efficiency, we do need to recognize that we can no longer ignore the opportunities that improved technologies and better practices offer to improve the overall efficiency, and as importantly, our perspective on the issues.  

So before the NY Times readers in the general public go out and tweet and post Facebook tirades on their newest iPhones about how the NY Times has exposed the ugly secrets of the data center, perhaps those who are actually in the data center industry should take this as wake-up call, in that they may be blamed for giving their customers what they want, when they want.

In effect, the “dirty secret” is that the Internet and the mega-data center are the enablers of social media and the ability for anyone and everyone to express and shape public opinion, not just the NY Times.