The fallout from the Sunday September 23rd NY Times front page article entitled “Power, Pollution and the Internet” which was purported as an “investigative reporting” piece has begun to spread.   In my last blog, I jokingly remarked that “the general public would go out and tweet and post Facebook tirades on their newest iPhones”. Well it has clearly moved beyond that.

Only a few days later on Sept 27, Ranking Committee Members of the US House of Representatives Henry A. Waxman, Member Bobby L. Rush and Anna G. Eshoo sent letters to the US Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “to request an update on efforts to improve energy efficiency in data centers across the county”.  

This was posted as an open letter to the US EPA and DOE in effect demanding an explanation of how and why they could allow the apparently flagrant energy and environmental disaster equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill happen, while these two major government agencies ignored the travesty. The letter specifically cited the NY Times article as the cause for their concerns and the motivating force behind the letter. Perhaps by triggering the open letter from members of Congress, the NY Times may feel they have brought “justice” to the ostensibly polluting, wasteful world of the Data Center Industry,  in the same vein as the Washington Post’s breaking open of the Watergate scandal.  

I agree that there are many "older" data centers that are less efficient than the newest designs.  There is no question that there is always room for improvement in almost any system or process and the data center is no exception.  However, the NY Times article did not provide both sides of the issue, perhaps because that would have made it less controversial.

I have been speaking and writing about energy efficiency even before the Green Grid was formed and created the PUE metric.  I too consider myself an advocate when it comes to pushing the energy efficiency agenda and have written that data centers can and should improve their energy efficiency at every opportunity, but not without first considering the implications or relative impact on risk .   

I find it amazing that after several years of investigation there was no mention of the efforts of the industry itself to improve. Moreover, there was no mention of key organizations such as The Green Grid and its now globally accepted PUE metric or ASHRAE’s 2011 Expanded Thermal Guidelines, that push the IT equipment’s thermal envelope (perhaps at the possible expense of reliability), all in the name of energy efficiency. And of course US EPA’s Energy Star for Data Centers program (which already includes Servers and the UPS, with Storage and Networking on the roadmap). And last but not least, the US Department of Energy’s “Data Center Energy Practitioners Program” (DCEP) which is designed to provide engineers and operators in the industry in-depth training and free software tools to improve the existing and future data centers. While these programs may not be perfect, for the NY Times article to make no mention of their existence seems absurd (presumably even a simple Google search much less the research done by the venerable Mckinsey and Company should have found these apparently “hidden” agencies and organizations and their efforts to improve efficiency,).

Usually financial gain is the motive behind most corporate “crimes”. The NY Times article has also chosen to overlook the most obvious self-serving motivations for improved energy efficiency – profit, by lowering operating costs.  In recent years the industry has moved toward a co-location model. Co-location operators have every financial reason to maximize their energy efficiency, since this directly affects their cost of operation, therefore their competiveness and ultimately their profitability  

However, since its inception, the enterprise data center has historically been the repository for an organization’s financial and other critical data. System redundancy and availability, “uptime” and minimizing risk of failure was and still is the overarching rule for most businesses.  Yes, the concept of improving energy efficiency is now part of the design and operational consideration, but availability continues and still is a basic requirement for most core business applications. So even in the face of these economic realities, most business will still invest in the redundant equipment that the Tier 3 and 4 data centers provide, even if it is somewhat lower in energy efficiency than a Tier 1 or 2 site. Of course, while the NY Times article seems to be able to have only attributed a misleading quote “original sin”, of the industry by Kenneth Brill, founder of The Uptime Institute. However, they seem to have totally overlooked the basic concepts of the Uptime Tier Reliability System.  

Speaking of tier levels and availability, I wonder does the NY Times data center have a single non-redundant tier 1 data center, with just air-side free cooling?  Or do they keep all their critical financial data (and all the NY Times publications) in multiple Tier 3-4 sites, each equipped with rows of “energy wasting” CRACs and multiple units of the “dreaded” diesel generator. Do their servers operate at 100% CPU use or do they also suffer from “low utilization”. Did they forgo redundant UPSes (or no UPS) and the ride-though energy storage provided “by 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”. 

Do you think the NY Times would “Consider it a Waste” or “too many insurance policies.”, if their servers crashed, as they allude to in the article?  Do you imagine the NY Times has given special instructions to never run monthly testing on their back-up generators, which presumably have the same particulate emissions with carcinogenic properties, that the article accuses the industry of?

As I said in my original blog response, the bigger “energy hungry” data center is only being built in response to customer demand.  However, it is really no longer just a “data” center.  For example; at almost any bank your entire financial history over a 20 year period with all your banking transactions would most likely only be a few megabytes of text/numerical data.  But all the Web and Mobile enabled banking applications (that are the current consumer basic expectation) may far exceed the size of underlying data that is being stored, transmitted, and displayed using high resolution graphics.

Clearly data centers no longer simply store just financial data. The general population thinks nothing of taking, storing and sending hundreds (if not thousands) of 5-10 megabyte photos from “smart” phones, with the expectation that it does not really “cost” anything (beyond the monthly charges).  And of course, we now have begun to move to “the Cloud” as if it too was a magical place, with no need of energy. We have become a society that can’t seem to get enough of everything and we all want it now. Moreover, since the open culture and expectation of the Internet is that the “basics”, such as Search and Social Media to name just a few, are all “free”.   

The Bottom Line

But in the end, does the data center industry partially have itself to blame for this unfair skewering in the NY Times? As Kevin Heslin, editor of Mission Critical Magazine pointed out in a recent comment on Linked-In “I've consistently argued that our fight club mentality was going to boomerang. As I think about it, we're probably more like the ostrich with our heads buried in the sand.

In the end, my counterpoints, as well as the many other industry responses will not mitigate the impact of the NY Times accusations, now that the US Congress has gotten involved.  We are moving into football season here in the US. So to those in the data center industry put on your helmets, this is now a political football game, with a first down that could turn rough.

Since this is now a political issue, as well as a presidential election year here in the US, I believe I am required to make the following statement:

“This is Julius Neudorfer and I approve this message”