Power, Pollution and the Internet
Data centers are filled with servers, which are like
bulked-up desktop computers, minus screens and
keyboards, that contain chips to process data.
By JAMES GLANZ
New York Times
September 23, 2012
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Jeff Rothschild's machines at
Facebook had a problem he knew he had to solve
immediately. They were about to melt.
The company had been packing a 40-by-60-foot rental
space here with racks of computer servers that were
needed to store and process information from members'
accounts. The electricity pouring into the computers was
overheating Ethernet sockets and other crucial
Thinking fast, Mr. Rothschild, the company's engineering
chief, took some employees on an expedition to buy every
fan they could find - "We cleaned out all of the
Walgreens in the area," he said - to blast cool air at
the equipment and prevent the Web site from going down.
That was in early 2006, when Facebook had a quaint 10
million or so users and the one main server site. Today,
the information generated by nearly one billion people
requires outsize versions of these facilities, called
data centers, with rows and rows of servers spread over
hundreds of thousands of square feet, and all with
industrial cooling systems.
They are a mere fraction of the tens of thousands of
data centers that now exist to support the overall
explosion of digital information. Stupendous amounts of
data are set in motion each day as, with an innocuous
click or tap, people download movies on iTunes, check
credit card balances through Visa's Web site, send Yahoo
e-mail with files attached, buy products on Amazon, post
on Twitter or read newspapers online.
A yearlong examination by The New York Times has
revealed that this foundation of the information
industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek
efficiency and environmental friendliness.
Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of
energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews
and documents show. 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.
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. In Silicon Valley, many data centers
appear on the state government's Toxic Air Contaminant
Inventory, a roster of the area's top stationary diesel
Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion
watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output
of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates
industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in
the United States account for one-quarter to one-third
of that load, the estimates show.
"It's staggering for most people, even people in the
industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of
these systems," said Peter Gross, who helped design
hundreds of data centers. "A single data center can take
more power than a medium-size town."
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. The rest was
essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in
case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash
A server is a sort of bulked-up desktop computer, minus
a screen and keyboard, that contains chips to process
data. The study sampled about 20,000 servers in about 70
large data centers spanning the commercial gamut: drug
companies, military contractors, banks, media companies
and government agencies.
"This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to
be the first to say mea culpa," said a senior industry
executive who asked not to be identified to protect his
company's reputation. "If we were a manufacturing
industry, we'd be out of business straightaway."
These physical realities of data are far from the
mythology of the Internet: where lives are lived in the
"virtual" world and all manner of memory is stored in
The inefficient use of power is largely driven by a
symbiotic relationship between users who demand an
instantaneous response to the click of a mouse and
companies that put their business at risk if they fail
to meet that expectation.
Even running electricity at full throttle has not been
enough to satisfy the industry. In addition to
generators, most large data centers contain banks of
huge, spinning flywheels or thousands of lead-acid
batteries - many of them similar to automobile batteries
- to power the computers in case of a grid failure as
brief as a few hundredths of a second, an interruption
that could crash the servers.
"It's a waste," said Dennis P. Symanski, a senior
researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute, a
nonprofit industry group. "It's too many insurance
At least a dozen major data centers have been cited for
violations of air quality regulations in Virginia and
Illinois alone, according to state records. Amazon was
cited with more than 24 violations over a three-year
period in Northern Virginia, including running some of
its generators without a basic environmental permit.
A few companies say they are using extensively re-
engineered software and cooling systems to decrease
wasted power. Among them are Facebook and Google, which
also have redesigned their hardware. Still, according to
recent disclosures, Google's data centers consume nearly
300 million watts and Facebook's about 60 million watts.
Many of these solutions are readily available, but in a
risk-averse industry, most companies have been reluctant
to make wholesale change, according to industry experts.
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.
For security reasons, companies typically do not even
reveal the locations of their data centers, which are
housed in anonymous buildings and vigilantly protected.
Companies also guard their technology for competitive
reasons, said Michael Manos, a longtime industry
executive. "All of those things play into each other to
foster this closed, members-only kind of group," he
That secrecy often extends to energy use. To further
complicate any assessment, no single government agency
has the authority to track the industry. In fact, the
federal government was unable to determine how much
energy its own data centers consume, according to
officials involved in a survey completed last year.
The survey did discover that the number of federal data
centers grew from 432 in 1998 to 2,094 in 2010.
To investigate the industry, The Times obtained
thousands of pages of local, state and federal records,
some through freedom of information laws, that are kept
on industrial facilities that use large amounts of
energy. Copies of permits for generators and information
about their emissions were obtained from environmental
agencies, which helped pinpoint some data center
locations and details of their operations.
In addition to reviewing records from electrical
utilities, The Times also visited data centers across
the country and conducted hundreds of interviews with
current and former employees and contractors.
Some analysts warn that as the amount of data and energy
use continue to rise, companies that do not alter their
practices could eventually face a shake-up in an
industry that has been prone to major upheavals,
including the bursting of the first Internet bubble in
the late 1990s.
"It's just not sustainable," said Mark Bramfitt, a
former utility executive who now consults for the power
and information technology industries. "They're going to
hit a brick wall."
Bytes by the Billions
Wearing an FC Barcelona T-shirt and plaid Bermuda
shorts, Andre Tran strode through a Yahoo data center in
Santa Clara where he was the site operations manager.
Mr. Tran's domain - there were servers assigned to
fantasy sports and photo sharing, among other things -
was a fair sample of the countless computer rooms where
the planet's sloshing tides of data pass through or come
Aisle after aisle of servers, with amber, blue and green
lights flashing silently, sat on a white floor punctured
with small round holes that spit out cold air. Within
each server were the spinning hard drives that store the
data. The only hint that the center was run by Yahoo,
whose name was nowhere in sight, could be found in a
tangle of cables colored in the company's signature
purple and yellow.
"There could be thousands of people's e-mails on these,"
Mr. Tran said, pointing to one storage aisle. "People
keep old e-mails and attachments forever, so you need a
lot of space."
This is the mundane face of digital information - player
statistics flowing into servers that calculate fantasy
points and league rankings, snapshots from nearly
forgotten vacations kept forever in storage devices. It
is only when the repetitions of those and similar
transactions are added up that they start to become
Each year, chips in servers get faster, and storage
media get denser and cheaper, but the furious rate of
data production goes a notch higher.
Jeremy Burton, an expert in data storage, said that when
he worked at a computer technology company 10 years ago,
the most data-intensive customer he dealt with had about
50,000 gigabytes in its entire database. (Data storage
is measured in bytes. The letter N, for example, takes 1
byte to store. A gigabyte is a billion bytes of
Today, roughly a million gigabytes are processed and
stored in a data center during the creation of a single
3-D animated movie, said Mr. Burton, now at EMC, a
company focused on the management and storage of data.
Just one of the company's clients, the New York Stock
Exchange, produces up to 2,000 gigabytes of data per day
that must be stored for years, he added.
EMC and the International Data Corporation together
estimated that more than 1.8 trillion gigabytes of
digital information were created globally last year.
"It is absolutely a race between our ability to create
data and our ability to store and manage data," Mr.
About three-quarters of that data, EMC estimated, was
created by ordinary consumers.
With no sense that data is physical or that storing it
uses up space and energy, those consumers have developed
the habit of sending huge data files back and forth,
like videos and mass e-mails with photo attachments.
Even the seemingly mundane actions like running an app
to find an Italian restaurant in Manhattan or a taxi in
Dallas requires servers to be turned on and ready to
process the information instantaneously.
The complexity of a basic transaction is a mystery to
most users: Sending a message with photographs to a
neighbor could involve a trip through hundreds or
thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple
data centers before the e-mail arrives across the
"If you tell somebody they can't access YouTube or
download from Netflix, they'll tell you it's a God-given
right," said Bruce Taylor, vice president of the Uptime
Institute, a professional organization for companies
that use data centers.
To support all that digital activity, there are now more
than three million data centers of widely varying sizes
worldwide, according to figures from the International
Nationwide, data centers used about 76 billion kilowatt-
hours in 2010, or roughly 2 percent of all electricity
used in the country that year, based on an analysis by
Jonathan G. Koomey, a research fellow at Stanford
University who has been studying data center energy use
for more than a decade. DatacenterDynamics, a London-
based firm, derived similar figures.
The industry has long argued that computerizing business
transactions and everyday tasks like banking and reading
library books has the net effect of saving energy and
resources. But the paper industry, which some predicted
would be replaced by the computer age, consumed 67
billion kilowatt-hours from the grid in 2010, according
to Census Bureau figures reviewed by the Electric Power
Research Institute for The Times.
Direct comparisons between the industries are difficult:
paper uses additional energy by burning pulp waste and
transporting products. Data centers likewise involve
tens of millions of laptops, personal computers and
Chris Crosby, chief executive of the Dallas-based
Compass Datacenters, said there was no immediate end in
sight to the proliferation of digital infrastructure.
"There are new technologies and improvements," Mr.
Crosby said, "but it still all runs on a power cord."
'Comatose' Power Drains
Engineers at Viridity Software, a start-up that helped
companies manage energy resources, were not surprised by
what they discovered on the floor of a sprawling data
center near Atlanta.
Viridity had been brought on board to conduct basic
diagnostic testing. The engineers found that the
facility, like dozens of others they had surveyed, was
using the majority of its power on servers that were
doing little except burning electricity, said Michael
Rowan, who was Viridity's chief technology officer.
A senior official at the data center already suspected
that something was amiss. He had previously conducted
his own informal survey, putting red stickers on servers
he believed to be "comatose" - the term engineers use
for servers that are plugged in and using energy even as
their processors are doing little if any computational
"At the end of that process, what we found was our data
center had a case of the measles," said the official,
Martin Stephens, during a Web seminar with Mr. Rowan.
"There were so many red tags out there it was
The Viridity tests backed up Mr. Stephens's suspicions:
in one sample of 333 servers monitored in 2010, more
than half were found to be comatose. All told, nearly
three-quarters of the servers in the sample were using
less than 10 percent of their computational brainpower,
on average, to process data.
The data center's operator was not some seat-of-the-
pants app developer or online gambling company, but
LexisNexis, the database giant. And it was hardly
In many facilities, servers are loaded with applications
and left to run indefinitely, even after nearly all
users have vanished or new versions of the same programs
are running elsewhere.
"You do have to take into account that the explosion of
data is what aids and abets this," said Mr. Taylor of
the Uptime Institute. "At a certain point, no one is
responsible anymore, because no one, absolutely no one,
wants to go in that room and unplug a server."
Kenneth Brill, an engineer who in 1993 founded the
Uptime Institute, said low utilization began with the
field's "original sin."
In the early 1990s, Mr. Brill explained, software
operating systems that would now be considered primitive
crashed if they were asked to do too many things, or
even if they were turned on and off. In response,
computer technicians seldom ran more than one
application on each server and kept the machines on
around the clock, no matter how sporadically that
application might be called upon.
So as government energy watchdogs urged consumers to
turn off computers when they were not being used, the
prime directive at data centers became running computers
at all cost.
A crash or a slowdown could end a career, said Michael
Tresh, formerly a senior official at Viridity. A field
born of cleverness and audacity is now ruled by
something else: fear of failure.
"Data center operators live in fear of losing their jobs
on a daily basis," Mr. Tresh said, "and that's because
the business won't back them up if there's a failure."
In technical terms, the fraction of a computer's
brainpower being used on computations is called
McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm that analyzed
utilization figures for The Times, has been monitoring
the issue since at least 2008, when it published a
report that received little notice outside the field.
The figures have remained stubbornly low: the current
findings of 6 percent to 12 percent are only slightly
better than those in 2008. Because of confidentiality
agreements, McKinsey is unable to name the companies
that were sampled.
David Cappuccio, a managing vice president and chief of
research at Gartner, a technology research firm, said
his own recent survey of a large sample of data centers
found that typical utilizations ran from 7 percent to 12
"That's how we've overprovisioned and run data centers
for years," Mr. Cappuccio said. " 'Let's overbuild just
in case we need it' - that level of comfort costs a lot
of money. It costs a lot of energy."
Servers are not the only components in data centers that
consume energy. Industrial cooling systems, circuitry to
keep backup batteries charged and simple dissipation in
the extensive wiring all consume their share.
In a typical data center, those losses combined with low
utilization can mean that the energy wasted is as much
as 30 times the amount of electricity used to carry out
the basic purpose of the data center.
Some companies, academic organizations and research
groups have shown that vastly more efficient practices
are possible, although it is difficult to compare
different types of tasks.
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing
Center, which consists of clusters of servers and
mainframe computers at the Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory in California, ran at 96.4 percent
utilization in July, said Jeff Broughton, the director
of operations. The efficiency is achieved by queuing up
large jobs and scheduling them so that the machines are
running nearly full-out, 24 hours a day.
A company called Power Assure, based in Santa Clara,
markets a technology that enables commercial data
centers to safely power down servers when they are not
needed - overnight, for example.
But even with aggressive programs to entice its major
customers to save energy, Silicon Valley Power has not
been able to persuade a single data center to use the
technique in Santa Clara, said Mary Medeiros McEnroe,
manager of energy efficiency programs at the utility.
"It's a nervousness in the I.T. community that something
isn't going to be available when they need it," Ms.
The streamlining of the data center done by Mr. Stephens
for LexisNexis Risk Solutions is an illustration of the
savings that are possible.
In the first stage of the project, he said that by
consolidating the work in fewer servers and updating
hardware, he was able to shrink a 25,000-square-foot
facility into 10,000 square feet.
Of course, data centers must have some backup capacity
available at all times and achieving 100 percent
utilization is not possible. They must be prepared to
handle surges in traffic.
Mr. Symanski, of the Electric Power Research Institute,
said that such low efficiencies made sense only in the
obscure logic of the digital infrastructure.
"You look at it and say, 'How in the world can you run a
business like that,' " Mr. Symanski said. The answer is
often the same, he said: "They don't get a bonus for
saving on the electric bill. They get a bonus for having
the data center available 99.999 percent of the time."
The Best-Laid Plans
In Manassas, Va., the retailing colossus Amazon runs
servers for its cloud amid a truck depot, a defunct
grain elevator, a lumberyard and junk-strewn lots where
machines compress loads of trash for recycling.
The servers are contained in two Amazon data centers run
out of three buildings shaped like bulky warehouses with
green, corrugated sides. Air ducts big enough to
accommodate industrial cooling systems sprout along the
rooftops; huge diesel generators sit in rows around the
The term "cloud" is often generally used to describe a
data center's functions. More specifically, it refers to
a service for leasing computing capacity. These
facilities are primarily powered from the national grid,
but generators and batteries are nearly always present
to provide electricity if the grid goes dark.
The Manassas sites are among at least eight major data
centers Amazon operates in Northern Virginia, according
to records of Virginia's Department of Environmental
The department is on familiar terms with Amazon. As a
result of four inspections beginning in October 2010,
the company was told it would be fined $554,476 by the
agency for installing and repeatedly running diesel
generators without obtaining standard environmental
permits required to operate in Virginia.
Even if there are no blackouts, backup generators still
emit exhaust because they must be regularly tested.
After months of negotiations, the penalty was reduced to
$261,638. In a "degree of culpability" judgment, all 24
violations were given the ranking "high."
Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, agreed that the
company "did not get the proper permits" before the
generators were turned on. "All of these generators were
all subsequently permitted and approved," Mr. Herdener
The violations came in addition to a series of lesser
infractions at one of Amazon's data centers in Ashburn,
Va., in 2009, for which the company paid $3,496,
according to the department's records.
Of all the things the Internet was expected to become,
it is safe to say that a seed for the proliferation of
backup diesel generators was not one of them.
Terry Darton, a former manager at Virginia's
environmental agency, said permits had been issued to
enough generators for data centers in his 14-county
corner of Virginia to nearly match the output of a
nuclear power plant.
"It's shocking how much potential power is available,"
said Mr. Darton, who retired in August.
No national figures on environmental violations by data
centers are available, but a check of several
environmental districts suggests that the centers are
beginning to catch the attention of regulators across
Over the past five years in the Chicago area, for
example, the Internet powerhouses Savvis and Equinix
received violation notices, according to records from
the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Aside from
Amazon, Northern Virginia officials have also cited data
centers run by Qwest, Savvis, VeriSign and NTT America.
Despite all the precautions - the enormous flow of
electricity, the banks of batteries and the array of
diesel generators - data centers still crash.
Amazon, in particular, has had a series of failures in
Northern Virginia over the last several years. One, in
May 2010 at a facility in Chantilly, took businesses
dependent on Amazon's cloud offline for what the company
said was more than an hour - an eternity in the data
Pinpointing the cause became its own information glitch.
Amazon announced that the failure "was triggered when a
vehicle crashed into a high-voltage utility pole on a
road near one of our data centers."
As it turns out, the car accident was mythical, a
misunderstanding passed from a local utility lineman to
a data center worker to Amazon headquarters. Instead,
Amazon said that its backup gear mistakenly shut down
part of the data center after what Dominion Virginia
Power said was a short on an electrical pole that set
off two momentary failures.
Mr. Herdener of Amazon said the backup system had been
redesigned, and that "we don't expect this condition to
The Source of the Problem
Last year in the Northeast, a $1 billion feeder line for
the national power grid went into operation, snaking
roughly 215 miles from southwestern Pennsylvania,
through the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia and
terminating in Loudon County, Va.
The work was financed by millions of ordinary
ratepayers. Steven R. Herling, a senior official at PJM
Interconnection, a regional authority for the grid, said
the need to feed the mushrooming data centers in
Northern Virginia was the "tipping point" for the
project in an otherwise down economy.
Data centers in the area now consume almost 500 million
watts of electricity, said Jim Norvelle, a spokesman for
Dominion Virginia Power, the major utility there.
Dominion estimates that the load could rise to more than
a billion watts over the next five years.
Data centers are among utilities' most prized customers.
Many utilities around the country recruit the facilities
for their almost unvarying round-the-clock loads. Large,
steady consumption is profitable for utilities because
it allows them to plan their own power purchases in
advance and market their services at night, when demand
by other customers plummets.
Mr. Bramfitt, the former utility executive, said he
feared that this dynamic was encouraging a wasteful
industry to cling to its pedal-to-the-metal habits. Even
with all the energy and hardware pouring into the field,
others believe it will be a challenge for current
methods of storing and processing data to keep up with
the digital tsunami.
Some industry experts believe a solution lies in the
cloud: centralizing computing among large and well-
operated data centers. Those data centers would rely
heavily on a technology called virtualization, which in
effect allows servers to merge their identities into
large, flexible computing resources that can be doled
out as needed to users, wherever they are.
One advocate of that approach is Mr. Koomey, the
Stanford data center expert. But he said that many
companies that try to manage their own data centers,
either in-house or in rental spaces, are still
unfamiliar with or distrustful of the new cloud
technology. Unfortunately, those companies account for
the great majority of energy usage by data centers, Mr.
Others express deep skepticism of the cloud, saying that
the sometimes mystical-sounding belief in its
possibilities is belied by the physicality of the
infrastructure needed to support it.
Using the cloud "just changes where the applications are
running," said Hank Seader, managing principal for
research and education at the Uptime Institute. "It all
goes to a data center somewhere."
Some wonder if the very language of the Internet is a
barrier to understanding how physical it is, and is
likely to stay. Take, for example, the issue of storing
data, said Randall H. Victora, a professor of electrical
engineering at the University of Minnesota who does
research on magnetic storage devices.
"When somebody says, 'I'm going to store something in
the cloud, we don't need disk drives anymore' - the
cloud is disk drives," Mr. Victora said. "We get them
one way or another. We just don't know it."
Whatever happens within the companies, it is clear that
among consumers, what are now settled expectations
largely drive the need for such a formidable
"That's what's driving that massive growth - the end-
user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere," said
David Cappuccio, a managing vice president and chief of
research at Gartner, the technology research firm.
"We're what's causing the problem."
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