The New York Times is two parts into a five-part series assessing the impact of the internet on our environment -- specifically, the cloud, the facilities and companies that store data and serve up sites and apps. Part one, "Power, Pollution and the Internet," focuses on the data centers that run servers 24 hours a day, using diesel generators as backup in the event of a power failure. Part two, "Data Barns in a Farm Town, Gobbling Power and Flexing Muscle," published today, focuses on one such facility owned by Microsoft that has led to power issues in both the electric and political senses.
The first two installments have done a good job of raising an important issue: A digital world is predicated on electricity. Electrons can't flip bits if they don't flow. What reporter James Glanz aims to do is articulate the extent of that electron flow. Oh, and while he's at it, critique the industry.
Some of the main points raised by Glanz.
- "Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found."
- "Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations."
- "To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show."
- "Nationwide, data centers used about 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, or roughly 2 percent of all electricity used in the country that year …"
The series (the first piece in particular) includes odd asides dinging tech companies. Like this, for example.
Improving or even assessing the field is complicated by the secretive nature of an industry that is largely built around accessing other people’s personal data.
It's a strange point to raise in the middle of an article about power consumption, perhaps revealing the reporter's bias against the industry, regardless of what the data shows.