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NYT Article Off-Mark in Its Criticism of Tech’s Efficiency Innovations

After reading the New York Times’ “Power, Pollution, and the Internet,” this weekend, I thought that it was time to close the books on DESSC.  We’ve so clearly failed to help create innovative, sustainable energy solutions in the tech sector.  Obviously, the Times has to be right:  There’s no way that big tech can co-exist with big energy savings and efficiencies.  

And then I snapped back to reality.  The article misses so many important accomplishments in our sector that are driving greater efficiencies and energy savings and promise to achieve so much more in the days ahead.  It is focused on old technology, and not the innovations at the heart of our work on sustainability and energy solutions.

There are myriad examples of the tech sector’s progress.

Consider the steps that Google has taken.  Its data centers use 50 percent less energy than the typical center – an accomplishment that is due to smart temperature controls, using “free-cooling” techniques like using outside air or reused water for cooling, and redesigning how power is distributed to reduce unnecessary energy loss.

Or Oracle.  Oracle’s innovations in data storage, networking, and virtualization provide greater performance and scale in less space while lowering environmental impact.  How do they achieve those results?  By engineering hardware and software to work together.  It results in higher performance and lower power consumption.

Or Microsoft.  Microsoft has made it part of the company’s core objectives to combine rapid-response data and online services that are founded in safe, sustainable, efficient methods.  That’s why its latest data centers use about 50 percent less energy than those from three years ago, and only one to three percent of the water used by traditional data centers in the industry.  And Microsoft is taking aggressive steps across all of its properties to be carbon neutral, from its data centers to the labs to the office buildings.  Carbon neutrality is everyone’s business at Microsoft. 

This kind of track record has made it possible for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to move forward with plans for its High Performance Computer Center in Golden, Colo.  The center will feature contributions from two innovation leaders – Intel and Hewlett-Packard – to reduce energy consumption while allowing for amazingly high performance computing applications.  The center will run be one of the first to use Intel's Xeon Phi co-processors, designed specifically to reduce energy consumption while conducting intricate modeling simulations like those that NREL will conduct.  At the same time, H-P is designing the cooling system that will rely on running warm water through the racks holding the data units, drawing heat away and dealing with it in a clean, efficient manner.  These two innovations are expected to earn a power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.06 or better.  PUE is a data center metric that measures the amount of energy needed to keep servers, hard drives, networking and other data center gear running version the amount of cooling technology it needs.  This is a major step toward energy efficiency, as the NREL center will run at a PUE rating of nearly half the typical data center, according to the U.S. EPA.

Yet, these kinds of successes were ignored in the Times’ piece.  It’s unfortunate that a year of research into the story did not result in a more thoughtful article.  I suppose true complexity, like a modern day computer center, is not easy to explain.  

Not only did he miss the innovations that are driving progress, but he also missed critical facts.  For example, for all of the lost energy the author cites in his article, he chooses to leave unmentioned the central fact that the value-added per kWh consumption by data centers is likely to be significantly greater than any other economic activity that is now occurring.  The replacement of moving bits for moving atoms across industry sectors is transforming our economy while having massive positive sustainability and energy ramifications.  And it could be even more pronounced.  The ACEEE this summer noted that “if homeowners and businesses were to take advantage of currently available information and communications technologies that enable system efficiencies, the United States could reduce its energy use by about 12-22 percent and realize tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in energy savings and productivity gains.”

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) today released a study presenting eight case studies of federal agencies using information and communication technologies to meet the twin challenges of cutting costs and advancing sustainability goals.  One of the case studies is on the use of the cloud at GSA, wherein total energy costs are being reduced by 85 percent.   Data centers are a central fixture in this drive towards greater sustainability.

I’ve got to ask:  How does GSA get it, but the New York Times doesn’t?

The author briefly mentions that “a few companies say they are using extensively re-engineered software and cooling systems to decrease wasted power.”  He’s right – just a few companies, like almost every major company that relies on data centers to conduct business.  Frankly, it is in businesses’ best interests to run data centers that provide the best service at the lowest cost.  In today’s world, that means rapid-fire data transactions with a low energy footprint.  It is part of every business’ corporate ethos.  It helps to drives their bottom line.  

I’m not blind to the challenge.  There certainly is waste in the digital ecosystem, and we can do better to address the remaining energy inefficiencies.  But the progress that is being made is mind-boggling.  Recall that computer systems of today, measured by instructions per second per watt, are over a 266,666,666,600 percent improvement over those being produced 50 years ago.   The same desire for improved performance is now being brought to the data center.  The Green Grid exists as an organization of representatives of the data center industry, user industries, utilities, and others for the sole purpose of improving data center resource efficiency. 

In the days ahead, the increasing use of virtualization innovations will vastly reduce energy consumption.  So, too, will new infrastructure designs, renewable energy connections, cooling inventions, deployment of solid-state drives, software for data de-duplication, and other game-changing advancements.  Across the spectrum, tech is turning big energy challenges into bigger sustainable opportunities.

Public Policy Tags: Intelligent Efficiency