Microsoft's datacentre energy waste highlights datacentre bad practices

Microsoft has wasted millions of watts of energy in its Quincy datacentre to avoid a $210,000 fine for underuse, according to the New York Times

Microsoft has wasted thousands of pounds worth of electricity at its Redmond Quincy datacentre to avoid a $210,000 (£129,000) penalty for underuse from its energy provider, according to the New York Times.

According to the report, Microsoft has run its diesel back-up generators in excess of what is required to provide safe, reliable power to its datacentres.

“Microsoft threatened to continue burning power in what it acknowledged was an ‘unnecessarily wasteful’ way until the fine was substantially cut, according to documents obtained by the New York Times,” the article stated.

“At a legal level, Microsoft had done the right thing and looked after its shareholders,” said Clive Longbottom, a datacentre energy expert from Quocirca. “But morally, Microsoft does not have a leg to stand on.”

To burn off the energy without a useful workload goes against everything that is being looked at by environmental organisations and governments, and is “un-green and nasty”, he said.

Utility contracts encourage waste

While the name of the utility company has not been revealed, most IT companies prefer to set up their datacentres in Quincy because of the availability of cheap renewable energy. Currently, Quincy is home to Microsoft, Yahoo!, Dell and Intuit datacentres.

“It seems the utility company saw the opportunity to recover some extra revenue for zero product in the form of an underpayment fee,” said Longbottom.

It is all in the nature of a utility contract, but these contracts must be more flexible if companies are to avoid such meaningless waste, said Tony Lock, programme director at Freeform Dynamics.

But experts have said that datacentre energy waste and inefficiency is not restricted to Microsoft alone. 

“I am not surprised about Microsoft simply burning energy to avoid a hefty penalty. If you dig around, you will find other large companies following the same practice,” said Lock.

“Look at it from any datacentre’s point of view – around 90% of the input energy is wasted for little reason,” said Longbottom.

Energy-saving practices required

If organisations agreed to put in place adequate virtualisation/cloud, run the datacentre at higher temperatures, use free air or other low-cost cooling and use better uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and generation systems, many millions of watt hours of energy could be saved per datacentre, experts said.

“Many datacentre managers do not even know how much energy their infrastructure uses, let alone finding efficiency and savings,” said Lock.

Following the report in the New York Times, Brian Janous, utility architect at Microsoft’s Data Center Advanced Development division, outlined the supplier’s efforts to make its datacentre efficient.

“We are working to create ever-greater efficiency, power supply reliability and system resiliency in our datacentres and software applications, with the goal of significantly reducing or even eliminating the use of generators entirely,” said Janous.

“These are important issues, and we will continue to work with industry, governments, customers, local communities and other stakeholders to improve the efficiency, sustainability, reliability and safety of our datacentres,” he added.

But, nevertheless, Microsoft should have talked to the utility company to try to reach a compromise, rather than simply burning power, experts insisted.

“Some payment for the underused energy would have been less environmentally damaging than the decision to burn off the energy as it did,” said Longbottom. “This way, Microsoft could meet both the shareholders' financial needs and the organisation's CSR statement around green sustainability.”

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