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Stanford Expert Says Internet's Backbone Can Readily Be Made More Sustainable

Publication Date: 
July 19, 2013
Source: 
Stanford Report
Author: 
Mark Golden

Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, spoke with Mark Golden of the Stanford Report on how big data centers can be made more sustainable and the challenges companies face when they attempt to improve their energy management.

Most big data centers, the global backbone of the Internet, could slash their greenhouse gas emissions by 88 percent by switching to efficient, off-the-shelf equipment and improving energy management, according to new research.

The carbon emissions generated by a search on Google or a post on Facebook are related mostly to three things: the computing efficiency of IT (information technology) data center equipment, like servers, storage and network switches; the amount of electricity a data center's building uses for things other than computing, primarily cooling; and how much of the center's electricity comes from renewable or low-carbon sources.

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"Of these three, improving the efficiency of the IT devices is overwhelmingly the most important," said Jonathan Koomey, a co-author of the study, "Characteristics of Low-Carbon Data Centers," published online June 25 in Nature Climate Change.

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The processors in most server farms perform computations at just 3 percent to 5 percent of their maximum capacity. Server virtualization, consolidation and better software can increase utilization to greater than 30 percent, and in some cases to be as high as 80 percent, said Koomey, a research fellow at Stanford University's Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, citing a recent account by Google.

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"These companies were hearing a lot of noise from Greenpeace and others. Apple went 100 percent renewable so they didn't have to hear about it, and with their high margins, they could afford to do that," said Koomey. "Electricity is a major cost for these companies, and in many of the countries where they operate, carbon emissions have a cost, or soon will."

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"The utilities and IT departments have separate budgets, and neither operates with the goal of saving the company money overall," said Koomey. "The IT people don't care about putting in an efficient server, because they don't pay the electric bill. Once you fix the institutional problems, then the company can move quickly, because the needed equipment is off-the-shelf and the energy management practices are well understood."

This principal-agent problem applies elsewhere in energy, too. "Who designs and builds your cable box? The cable company. Who pays the electric bill? You do," said Koomey. "So, you end up with a cat warmer on your shelf."

Koomey noted that the computing efficiency problem is sometimes exaggerated. Data centers consume about 1.5 percent of the world's electricity and are responsible for about 0.5 percent of carbon emissions. And the Internet overall is reducing greenhouse gas emissions because it distributes goods digitally that once were delivered physically, like books, music, publications and mail.