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Datacentre sector's energy consumption habits "overlooked" by campaigners

CTO of automation management firm ponders why the energy consumption habits of datacentres are not given the same level of scrutiny as other industries

The datacentre industry’s energy consumption habits are being largely ignored by campaign groups because so few people understand what goes on inside them, it is claimed.

Anne Currie, CTO of automation management provider Microscaling Systems, made the assertion at the inaugural HumanOps meetup in central London on 19 May 2016, during a talk about how the resource efficiency of datacentres may become more tightly scrutinised over time.

“The average efficiency of resource use globally across datacentres is around 10 to15%, which seems a bit bad, and it might be that it’s impossible to get higher than that,” she said.

“But that’s not the case, because there are companies worldwide that are doing considerably better. Netflix is achieving around 50% efficiency, and Google 65 to 70% efficiency. So it is doable, but we could do better.”

Currie also pointed to figures featured in the Economist in March 2016 that suggest the datacentre sector consumes around 2% of the energy produced in the world.

This is on a par with the amount of energy consumed by the aviation industry, whose activities are far more closely monitored by environmental lobbyists and campaign groups than the datacentre sector is.

“The aviation industry – an industry people consider to be a terribly high consumer of energy – is similar at around 2-2.5% of the world’s energy use,” she said.

“But people campaign against new runways, they really care. Yet no one campaigns against new datacentres being opened. Is that fair that we don’t suffer that while the aviation industry does?

“The aviation industry is a terribly efficient industry that really doesn’t want to be using any fuel it doesn’t have to, because it’s a key part of what makes them competitive,” Currie added.

Read more about datacentre efficiency

The datacentre industry should, however, prepare itself for that to change as the general public becomes more aware of the roles these facilities play in the underlying delivery of the services they use every day.  

“From an operatives perspective, I’m extremely happy it’s not a pressure on me to be more efficient in my datacentre use. It’s a huge relief that people aren’t campaigning outside my house because my apps are too bloated and not resource efficient,” she said.

“But, from a human perspective, I can’t help but feel it’s not a good thing that no one’s putting any pressure on us [as an industry], and we’re only getting away with it because no one has the faintest idea of what goes on in a datacentre.”

The datacentre industry’s track record on energy efficiency and carbon emission is now regularly reviewed by the likes of Greenpeace and The Green Grid.

Meanwhile, Digital Realty told Computer Weekly in February 2016 that operators should prepare for the introduction of regulations designed to lower their energy use and carbon emissions in due course.

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT

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This is a very interesting article.
In particular, I was interested in how Anne Currie felt that there wasn't enough action against new Data Centre builds and certainly not in parity to the aviation industry. I have recently been in La Corneuve, just outside of Paris where a local action group Urbaxion 93 was setup to protest a data centre in their neighborhood (a huge site literally less than 10 metres away from a built up residential neighbourhood). Late last year they succesful had the data centre closed down through the local government but sadly money talks and in less than six months, the site is now in a full scale doubling in capacity. This is (and I agree with Currie) largely as a result of a lack of understanding of the impacts of data centres. They're just not quite as visible and obvious as plans taking off and landing.

In the tiny town of Athenry in Galway, there is this week a final public hearing for a proposed super size data centre by Apple which has been vehemently opposed, and not even so much on the grounds of it being an eyesore but just that the location itself is poorly chosen and will contribute nothing to the local economy beyond the initial construction phase but will be replacing years old forest (of arguably non-native trees but does that really matter) and will leave behind a decimated floor space. It is being proposed to be built in a forest for 'security' reasons, but in reality, it could just as easily be secure and built in an existing industrial zone only a few miles up the road and would then maybe actually do something to contribute to the local economy.

Apple claim it will exclusively power it from wind (Ireland has a substantial wind farm industry) but given that the forecast is that it will use 12% of the entire wind farm supply of Ireland once fully operational, it is surprising that Apple are not offering to support in building new energy infrastructure to support their significant need. So demand will increase and costs will increase and be spread to tax payers of Ireland.
The environmental concerns run deep even in the most 'efficient' centres but as they are so easily shrouded in secrecy (in high security fenced off forests) the public don't realise the potential threat they pose to ecology.
I suspect it has a lot to do with ignorance - the majority of people just aren’t that aware of how many data centers there are and how much energy they consume. I think that’s largely because, as erkkwarmy pointed out, they’re just not as visible and obvious as the aviation industry.