It's not often that an article in the newspaper sends the entire IT industry off in a tizzy, but a New York Times article on the evils of datacenters has had IT executives talking all week.
I've had conversations with industry journalists and executives about the contents of the article and have heard at least 50 shades of astonishment, but many responses clustered near the very carefully worded stance of John Pflueger, principal environmental strategist at Dell, when he said, "I don't think the article properly communicated how complex the issue is."
The article has certainly opened up a discussion of this complex issue -- and it's a discussion that CIOs and IT executives should be prepared to continue with others in their organizations.
David S. Hale is IT director at American Medical Depot in King of Prussia, Pa. An IT executive with decades of experience in large and small datacenters, Hale's initial email conversation with me on the contents of the article was blunt. "If someone handed it to me on a piece of paper I would bet that it was written in the late 1990s," he wrote. In a follow-up conversation, he pointed to the many factors that make a cavalier attitude toward datacenter energy consumption a non-starter for virtually every company:
When we design datacenters, when we're installing infrastructure, we do calculations on heat given off, how much energy is needed, how much cooling is needed, and everything is planned out to the final degree because all of this costs money. If you don't care about the energy use you lose money.
Looking back at his history in the industry, he said that the tools to save energy have become more powerful as the capability of computer systems has increased:
Virtualization isn't cutting edge -- it's here right now. Back at Unisys in 2007 we created a service for our customers using VDI. That creates even more savings for the customer. We've seen huge benefits with time. Processors take less energy, disks take less energy and SSDs take even less than that. Also, some data centers are putting solar panels on their roofs to reduce their requirements from the electric company.
Reducing electric load is the goal of The Green Grid, an organization made up of companies that operate datacenters and the vendors that supply their equipment. John Tuccillo is president of The Green Grid and global VP of industry, government, and global alliances at Schneider Electric. When I talked with him about the issues raised in the Times' article, he spoke passionately on the advances in the industry since The Green Grid was founded in 2007:
The PUE [Power Usage Effectiveness] was introduced by the Green Grid in 2007, and some new information being published in the next few days further refines the metric. Governments around the world have agreed that the PUE is a baseline for measuring efficiency in datacenters. Today you may have a baseline PUE of 1.4 -- a great improvement over the 2.4 - 2.7 that were common back in 2004.
Tuccillo pointed to the twin advancements of virtualization and modular design as keys to substantial incremental advancements in PUE in recent years:
Look at how many companies segment the data center according to the needs of the uptime and redundancy of the application at hand. Many [new datacenters] allow you to modularize and only use the power required for the particular job.
As the new generation of servers is able to communicate to the electric distribution infrastructure the needs of the application, there will be more fine-grained ways of managing the power usage of individual servers and individual CPU cards.
For John Pflueger, the ability to closely match computing task to energy consumption marks another way to lower energy consumption. The Dell environmental strategist (who is also Dell's representative on the Green Grid board of directors) said that many of the largest datacenters are also involved in a new model of computing economy:
One of the distinctions I use is that we're starting to see data centers I would characterize as factories -- data centers that produce something that's sold for revenue. Google and eBay are like that. When data centers are built as factories they can be much more sophisticated in how they architect the equipment and infrastructure.
He contrasted this to traditional enterprise datacenters in which truly mission-critical applications might only represent 20 percent of the server load but often drive the entire design of the datacenter.
The issue for all of these executives, though, wasn't that there are no issues in datacenter energy consumption, but that the Times' writer painted a picture that's a decade behind the times. Pflueger couched it in terms of business history. "Data centers are like any other business. There are always things that work really well, and there are always things that you're looking to improve. It's been true for decades and will be true for a long time to come."
So what's a CIO to do when a fellow business executive or board member comes up and starts quoting the article, asking just how the IT department can justify the environmental ruin it's visiting upon the earth? Tucillo says that IT executives can honestly point to significant progress in the last few years:
As a people we expect the services of the data center. Governments around the world are improving GDP through more efficient data centers. We should look at how the IT industry is working transparently among peers and with governments and private industry around the world to get energy efficiencies not seen in any other industry.
Hale says that he finds a comparison a useful way to start the energy conversation:
I would go back to an analogy I use for a lot of people: When they complain about how long something is taking on their computer, I compare it to the time required to do it all by paper. Think about all the waste paper that would be required if we were not using computers. The waste would be greater if we weren't using the computers.
When it comes to compelling points, though, Pflueger says that while the arguments can be complex, the tools to begin the discussion are available to every IT department. He explained:
It's a hard question to answer. Almost all IT organizations are going to be able to answer in a way that eases the concerns of the executive. The Green Grid has had a mission, since 2007, to improve the energy efficiency of data centers and in the last year that's expanded into water and carbon footprint.
Every data center should endeavour to understand what its impacts are and be able to measure the impact and be able to track and show improvement over time. From day one of the Green Grid's public existence we've been in favor of organizations implementing Green Grids metrics and tracking them.
So what's your argument? How do you explain to the rest of the enterprise how you justify the large energy footprint of your datacenter? The debate is out there -- what points are you able to add to the discussion? The comments are open: Let us know what you think.