Opening Up Fort Knox: Looking for Transparency to Foster Data Center Innovation

green-data-centers-bannerBy David Zwerin, Sustainability Marketing Consultant

Photo Courtesy of Inhabitat
Photo Courtesy of Inhabitat

While researching the sustainability of data centers, I became frustrated with the lack of corporate transparency around the environmental impacts associated with their data centers. Many companies talk about how efficient their data centers are, but stop short at providing hard facts, data, and relevant numbers to authenticate their story.

Data centers have become the new Fort Knox, housing everything from Facebook photos to medical records, and data driven companies are unwilling, or so it appears, to share any environmental impact information about their data center. There is a belief that disclosing this information, competitors will reverse engineer the environmental impact data to shed light on the capacity of a data center to gain a competitive advantage.

As a result, there is an underestimated perception of the true environmental impact of data centers. To truly create innovation in this sector, more transparency is necessary to stimulate an industry-wide discourse on the true environmental risks of data centers, enabling companies to develop effective strategies and best practices for reducing the impact of their data management.

Data centers’ significant impact revolves around the massive energy consumption and inefficient use of resources. In 2006, the EPA reported that domestic data centers accounted for 1.5% of total energy consumption in the United States. The report continues to predict that total to double by 2012.

Another recent study by Kelton Research states that globally, more than $25 billion a year is lost in powering servers due to non-use or idling. Additionally, data centers require greater infrastructure including hardware (the servers and support systems) and physical space. The infrastructure requirements alone increase a company’s carbon emission liability.

The Liquid Liability
Data centers also require huge amounts of water for their cooling systems. James Hamilton, a data center designer for, spoke to another incredible stat, “a 15-megawatt data center can use up to 360,000 gallons of water a day.” Hamilton goes on to say, “no one talks about water. The water consumption (in data centers) is super embarrassing. It just doesn’t feel responsible. We need designs that stop using water.” It is evident—the magnitude of these issues needs to be tackled head-on.

Corporate executives are beginning to see these impacts as costs on their balance sheet. If the financial pain points weren’t obvious before, rising cost of energy and staying ahead of aging infrastructure are compounding a greater financial imperative. Human capital also plays a huge role in the function of data centers.  IT teams are being asked to do more with less and staying ahead of the myriad of potential risks.

Adding to the list of problems, even the geographic location of a data center may make it susceptible to environmental catastrophes that can cause service interruptions and power outages. Inconsistent operation of the data center can be more than just an inconvenience for the company, it can also pose a huge liability for developing customer trust. A company that cannot guarantee consistent, rapid access to data is unlikely to last long in the market.

So why aren’t more companies coming clean with their direct contribution to their impacts and being more transparent about these issues as a means of moving the entire data management industry forward?

A number of large companies are making advances in sustainable data centers with the specific aim of mitigating environmental risks. These are the companies in my mind that will connect the business value with their customers priorities and win marketshare.

Yahoo! announced this year that it is building a data center in upstate New York that will be hydro-powered by nearby Niagara Falls. This seasonally cold location also offers Yahoo a chance to cool the data center using ambient air. Google is putting its own spin on the data center by using all forms of renewable energy and best practices around energy efficiency.

Industry Responds by Looking at the Clouds
An alternative to making individual company data centers more environmentally efficient is to get rid of them altogether. IBM, Sun and other high tech giants are talking to their customers about the environmental benefits of moving to the cloud as a way to shield against rising costs and other risks. The cloud is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on how the Internet is depicted in computer network diagrams and is an abstraction of the underlying infrastructure it conceals.

In many ways, the cloud is inherently a green solution because it aggregates the data management requirements of multiple companies to leverage economies of scale. Many cloud companies are using more efficient servers while eliminating their client’s direct IT infrastructure. If moving to the cloud isn’t your thing, the Green Grid is a collaboration between the Department of Energy, EPA, and private industry to reduce energy demand in data centers.

Although many within the data center community are aware of the environmental impacts of data management, this topic has only recently penetrated the public consciousness. Innovations exist and the brilliant ideas are there, but companies need to begin to address specific impacts and move forward with solutions.

Companies on the sidelines need to understand the value proposition and create an imperative for change. Bottom-line, companies should be challenged by their stakeholders to foster a conversation to figure out how to share best practices around data management without compromising their secret sauce.

David is a marketing and sustainability professional helping companies tell their story. David has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio School of Management

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2 responses

  1. This is a great article because it brings awareness to a topic that is not on the forefront for many of us. Particulary being in a profession that is dependant on volumes of data (legal industry), it is good to learn about various approaches like “cloud”, Green Grid, and what companies like Yahoo! and Google are doing. Thank you to Mr. David Zwerin for thoughtfully providing this information.

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