Impacts of Regulations on Data Center Operations

At the recent Motivated to Influence Data Center Conference in San Francisco, there was a session titled, Will Regulation and European Standards on Energy and Carbon Efficiency Create an Inflection Point for the US Data Center Industry?

There has been a lot of discussion about how to regulate data centers and their operations, because they consume a large amount of resources, such as power and water.

The session was moderated by Mark Bramfitt, Principal, Bramfitt Consulting, and speakers were Gary Cook, Senior IT Analyst, Greenpeace International, and Pierre Delforge, Director of High Tech Sector Efficiency, Natural Resource Defense Council. The session topic was changed slightly and European standards were not discussed. But, overall, it was a very informative session from parties that are not data center operators or users.

 From left: Pierre Delforge, Gary Cook, and Mark Bramfitt

A data center operator runs a business and needs to maximize revenue and minimize expenses. There are many types of expenses, such as land, construction, ICT equipment, facility equipment, human resources, taxes, and power.

Power costs alone do not determine the site for a data center. But securing enough power at a reasonable price is increasingly important these days. Energy mixes to generate power vary by region, resulting in different costs. As a businessperson, a data center operator prefers to build a data center where power is abundant and inexpensive.

In many regions, power costs are lower because the source of power generation is coal. As is known, burning coal emits harmful chemicals and CO2 into the air, so it is better not to use power from coal and other fossil fuels. But how do we convince data center operators not to do so, when power from fossil fuels, such as coal, is less expensive than power from renewables, the alternative?

As data centers consume a vast amount of power, it is imperative to have independent organizations to monitor how much power is consumed and how energy efficient data centers are. Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are two such organizations.

In his opening statement, Delforge talked about how he moved from his IT industry experience to NRDC and what they have done in terms of study and publications in the area of data center energy efficiency. Under his initiative, NRDC published the following reports:

  • Data Center Efficiency Assessment in August 2014. This report was unique in emphasizing IT equipment efficiency and utilization, and multitenant hosting efficiency.

He went on to say that there are about three million data centers of various sizes (most of them are small) now in the US, and they require 34 power plants to provide adequate power, costing nine billion dollars annually. By 2020, this requirement is expected to grow by 50 percent, resulting in 17 more power plants. With rigorous energy efficiency, we could manage to sustain such growth without any new power plants.

Gary Cook’s opening remark was in response to Bramfitt’s question, which was to find out how the industry received Greenpeace’s report on utility scale cloud companies’ data center information, such as the total amount of power consumed and energy mixes for their power use. Greenpeace started working on data center energy efficiency around 2009–2010. The amount of power the data center industry consumed as a whole could be ranked at fifth or sixth globally, if it were a country. Increased power demand usually means power by cheap coal, and replacement of it by renewable energy is necessary to prevent harmful chemicals in the air and GHG emissions. Cook emphasized that to curb power consumption, promote energy efficiency, and use renewable energies, it is vital to get the IT industry’s buy-in.

Facebook, which was expanding rapidly with high power demand in regions where power was generated from coal, did not listen to Greenpeace at first but eventually began to understand their arguments. Facebook’s latest data center, in Iowa, is designed to be powered 100% by renewables, and they influence utility companies and other vendors to comply with this mandate. They can do this because of the size and scale of their buying power.

Bramfitt asked Cook about the report published in April 2012 entitled, How Clean is Your Cloud? and its annex, Company Data Center and Estimates of Power Demand. In this report, the grade is based on three areas: efficiency, power procurement, and transparency. It was very hard to obtain the necessary information to grade on transparency. It is still hard to get data on power consumption and energy mixes, which is easily understandable because it is strategic information. A general tendency is not to reveal such details but publish PUE, which may indicate certain aspects of data center energy efficiency but not necessarily show the impact on the surrounding environment. However, these attitudes have been changing in the past two to two and a half years. A good indication of that is that 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies now have carbon reduction goals.

Delforge said that transparency must include utilization. In general, highly utilized systems are more efficient than the less utilized. An average server utilization is around 12%, but it may consume 60–80% of power when fully utilized. IT resources should be powered down or highly virtualized when their utilization is low. There are a few metrics for data centers, such as CADE, that take into account utilization of both IT and facility. But they are not applied extensively. Cook injected the following: utilization information is very hard data to obtain. Except for eBay, he could not get any meaningful data.

This is understandable. Cloud providers claim that they can address any loads on demand no matter how suddenly they occur. Technically, there is no magic to realize that without sufficient resources for the worst case. In other words, in the usual case, those resources are not utilized at all. Unlike software, hardware, whether it is ICT, power, or cooling equipment, cannot be added or removed on demand, because it is a physical entity.

Finally, Bramfitt threw out to the panel his expertise in relations with utilities. For those who do not know Bramfitt’s background, he was principal program manager at PG&E and dealt with many data center operators from the utility perspective. His question was which route to take to influence data center operators to pressure utilities to provide cleaner energy or persuade public utility commissions (PUC) to pressure utilities to provide cleaner energy. Some large operators may have the clout to pressure utilities, but the data center industry as a whole should unite to work with PUC and utilities.

If you want to learn more about what Greenpeace and NRDC are doing in this area, both Pierre and Gary have their own blogs, Delforge’s blog and Cook’s blog.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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