Internet sometimes isn't cool

Imagine a life without the internet. You can’t! That’s how inextricably enmeshed the internet is in our lives. Kids learn to play “angry birds” on the PC before they learn to say “duh”, school children hobnob on Facebook and many of us regularly browse, upload photos, watch videos and do a dozen other things on the internet.
The uses of the internet have assumed gigantic proportions. Nowadays we use the internet to search billions of documents, share photographs with our online community, blog and stream video. In this age of exploding data and information overload where split second responses and blazing throughputs are the need of the hour, data centers have stepped up to fill the need.
But there is a dark side to these data centers – the facilities consume a lot of energy and are extremely power hungry besides. Of all utility power supplied to data center only 6%-12% is used for actual computation. The rest of the power is either used for air conditioning or is lost through power distribution.
A recent article “Power, pollution and the Internet” in the New York Times claims that “worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.” Further the article states that “it is estimated that Google’s data centers consume nearly 300 million watts and Facebook’s about 60 million watts or 60 MW”
It is claimed that Facebook annually draws 509 million kilowatt hours of power for its data centers (see Estimate: Facebook running 180,000 servers). This article further concludes “that the social network is delivering 54.27 megawatts (MW) to servers” or approximately 60 MW to its data center. The other behemoths in this domain including Yahoo, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple all have equally large or larger data centers consuming similar amounts of energy.  Recent guesstimates have placed Google’s server count at more than 1 million and consuming approximately 220 MW. Taking a look at the generation capacities of power plants in India we can see that 60 MW is between to 20%-50% of the capacity of power plants while 220 MW is entire capacity of medium-sized power plants.
One of the challenges that these organizations face is the need to make the data center efficient. New techniques are constantly being used in the ongoing battle to reduce energy consumption in a data center. These tools are also designed to boost a data center's Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating. Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft compete to get to the lowest possible PUE measure in their newest data centers. The earlier data centers used to average 2.0 PUE while advanced data centers these days aim for lower ratings of the order of 1.22 or 1.16 or lower.
In the early days of data center technology the air-conditioning systems used to cool by brute force. Later designs segregated the aisles as hot & cold aisle to improve efficiency. Other technique use water as a coolant along with heat exchangers. A novel technique was used by Intel recently in which servers were dipped in oil. While Intel claimed that this improved the PUE rating there are questions about the viability of this method considering the messiness of removing or inserting new circuit board from the servers.
Data centers are going to proliferate in the coming days as information continues to explode. The hot new technology “Cloud Computing” is nothing more that data centers which uses virtualization technique or the ability to run different OS on the hardware improving server utilization.
Clearly the thrust of technology in the days to come will be on identifying renewable sources of energy and making data centers more efficient.
Data centers will become more and more prevalent in the internet and technologies to make them efficient will be crucial as we move to a more data driven world.
This article represents the author's viewpoint only and doesn't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions
Tinniam V Ganesh is an Infrastructure Architect at IBM India, Global Technology Services. You can write to him at [email protected] and read his blog
For an alternate take on this issue, see this post from Telecom Ramblings editor and TelecomAsia contributor Rob Powell