Dirty Secret: Data Centers Consume More Power Than Most Towns
When you conduct a search on Google, buy a product on Amazon or update your status on Facebook, you probably don’t think about what’s behind your query. Server farms, which are warehouses and facilities packed with servers, make it possible for every online activity to happen seamlessly and quickly.
Those servers require a certain amount of power to keep going. And that certain amount of power is the topic of discussion in an article in The New York Times, which maintains data centers have the potential to use more power than a medium-size town.
Racking systems stacked with servers, situated one next to another, pull a certain amount of power just doing their job, but also produce a certain amount of heat that requires cooling – which also consumes a quantity of energy. Worldwide, the article says that digital warehouses use roughly 30 billion watts of electricity. The article states power consumption is equal to the output of 20 nuclear power plants.
“It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” The Times quotes Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”
Consumption of power from the grid is one component in the data industry’s dirty little book of secrets. The industry commonly sets up back-up and auxiliary power systems to compensate for its appetite. Diesel engines power generators to compensate for demand. In case of a momentary power surge – which most of us might not even notice – server farms are often plugged into spinning flywheels or thousands of lead-acid batteries similar to the ones you have under the hood of your car. These systems kick in to supplement any waver in electricity to prevent server crashes.
The New York Times worked with consulting firm McKinsey & Company to analyze the ‘data on data’. Problems identified in the report are underlined by data’s overwhelming appetite. Google’s data centers consume close to 300 million watts, and Facebook’s data centers gobble about 60 million watts. The larger problem is that a relatively small amount of electricity – between 6% and 12% – are used to power servers responding to user queries and to perform computations. The rest of the power consumption is said to go toward reserves which keeps servers powered up to handle any surge in activity. Up to – and over – 80% of power usage in these data centers is devoted to searches and online activities that could happen.
You might say this is an excess and that data companies don’t need to go to these lengths. But what happens when your query returns with an error? It’s the making of a headline on The New York Times and other publications. Google is among the largest of companies targeted, but by no means alone in its participation.
Newer servers are built to consume less power, produce less heat and manage traffic in a more efficient manner. Companies are slow to move to these new servers, and rely on their abilities, because of costs associated with the upgrades, and risks of trying a new system.