From Duct Tape to Data Science

Roel Castelein

Unknown, yet managing every aspect of our complex lives, data centers are polluting beasts.

Managing car flows with traffic lights, tracking credit card transactions, making phone calls, buying groceries, watching television, sharing pictures, sending emails, controlling planes and trains, handling civil services, dispensing healthcare, and receiving education – all are possible because of data centers.

Without data centers, the world would plummet into chaos. Picture failing traffic lights, wiped out banking debits/credits, and broken food supply chains, which could result in anarchy and the end of civilization as we currently know it.

The point is data computing is one of the most powerful forces in the world, yet remains largely invisible. “Send it to the cloud” still implies physically storing data, which invariably means in a data center. Figures don’t lie. Global data center growth for the coming five years is predicted to be 8.49% CAGR and will most likely be higher. Not bad in times of economic uncertainty.

But data centers consume energy, usually of the fossil kind, to cool their data. Estimates tell us the ICT industry consumes around 6% of the world’s energy. Data centers account for half of ICT energy consumption or around 3%. The world’s energy consumption in 2015 was 16.28 Terawatts. So data centers consumed 0.49 Terawatts of the world’s energy and is growing at 8.49% annually.

But why do data centers require cooling? Picture the whirring fan in your laptop to cool a processor and multiply it by a million. Data centers need energy to cool countless hot microprocessors that perform calculations or logical functions. Processors take “two values” and add, extract, divide, or determine a logical function, resulting in “one value.” Values are stored as electrical charges, thus “two electrical charges” result in “one electrical charge.” And dropping one electrical charge generates heat. Processors drop these charges millions of times per second, hence the heat, the little laptop fan to prevent overheating, and the need for cooling data centers.

“All right, I am a CIO. I get it, so what now?”

Let’s have a look at two extremes and then settle for some practical advice from the hyperscale crowd.

If you’re working with limited to no budget, buy duct tape and blanking panels. Most legacy data centers could benefit from plugging leaks with something as simple as duct tape. Just like a refrigerator, a data center’s cooling function works best when its air flows are unmixed and controlled. Another simple way is installing blanking panels to seal off unused rack units. This prevents the mixing of hot and cold air flows and reduces the need to cool, which results in lower energy costs.

Is money no object? Follow in Google’s footsteps and buy a team of data scientists. Google concluded that its existing thinking on improving their data centers’ PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness, which measures how efficiently your compute infrastructure uses data center power) had plateaued. So they bought DeepMind, a British data science company that succeeded in reducing Google's data center fleet electricity needs for cooling by 40%. While not every company can afford the £400 million to buy more knowledge and expertise, Google has shared its data center optimization best practices publicly so others may benefit. And be sure to check out The Green Grid’s Library and Tools. We are the industry association that invented PUE and evangelizes energy-efficient ICT globally.

Data and computer systems facilitate modern life (cue “Alexa”) and continue to grow. But at what cost? Unless your data center is 100% sourced by renewable energy, an unbeatable best practice, it is time to take action, do your bit for the environment, and save ICT energy costs.

I, for one, want to be able to look my kids in the eye in 25 years time and tell them, ”No, I was not part of the problem, but a part of the solution.” Are you?

To become part of the solution, consider joining The Green Grid, or if you already have, increasing your participation in the development of the association’s industry-leading metrics, best practices, and research.