Tags: Glanz | data | centers | electricity

NYT's James Glanz Talks About Data Centers

By    |   Thursday, 10 January 2013 02:00 PM

James Glanz, an investigative reporter for The New York Times who has been writing a series on Internet data centers around the country, discussed with Peter Slen on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” program about how data centers work as they keep and process Google requests, Amazon purchases, bank inquiries and many other Internet transactions.

Glanz explained that an Internet data center is the place where data are stored and then retrieved in response to inquiries, such as directions to a restaurant or the balance in a bank account. They’re colossal in their size and in the amount of electricity they use, which can be as much as a medium-sized town.

The industry is secretive, and the data centers are often “hidden in place sight,” housed in industrial-style buildings with visible diesel backup generators. Some are located in urban high rises, others are in suburban greenfields. There are concentrations in some places, such as Northern Virginia and Silicon Valley, but they’re so crucial to commerce that “everyone has to have one,” so they could be located almost anywhere and everywhere.

They’re sometimes owned by their users, but they can also be owned by companies like Equinix that sell pieces of time and space at their data centers. The data centers are stacked densely with thousands of computer servers. If one sends an email to a friend down the street, it could well travel through cables or fiber optics 1,000 miles to a server and then back to the recipient.

Some data are accessed and then disappear, whereas other data are stored forever. The expression “cloud” is defined by technicians as the rentable space where data are stored remotely as opposed to on the desk of the user.

Slen asked Glanz about a statement he made in one of his investigative pieces that “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.”

Glanz noted that “Different players in this industry do behave differently,” with some more wasteful than others. He clarified that “These data centers, typically, are actually not doing anything but drawing electricity, for the most part. Most of the electricity that goes into a typical data center is really powering a computer that’s waiting for something to do, and these things, once they’re turned on — because we, as consumers, insist that this infrastructure always be available and never run out of capacity — are just sitting there waiting for us to call upon to do something, whether it’s the dead of night, when nobody’s really asking for the service, or the middle of the day when everyone is. They’re all always on, and it’s kind of a built-in way of operating in this industry that has developed a lot of critics.”

Glanz cited estimates that the industry uses 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to 30 nuclear power plants, with U.S. data centers accounting for a third to a quarter of that load, or about 2 percent of the national total.

He stressed that the load is steady and 90 percent of the electricity is essentially wasted, and he charged that most of the waste could be conserved, but the industry is very risk-averse, so the tendency is to throw more service at the issue rather than to employ new technology.

He allowed that the data centers are still “more forward-leaning than banks or big box stores in how they use electricity.”

Google’s use of electricity grew from 250 million watts in 2010 to 300 million watts the following year. These figures rival those of heavy industries like paper and steel. An official from California’s Pacific Gas & Electric utility has questioned whether this rate of growth is sustainable.

According to Glanz, a case study in Quincy, Wash., showed that “When one of these data centers comes to town, they can feel more like an old-time manufacturing than modern magic.” Quincy is a town of 7,000 whose attraction to Microsoft and a cluster of other tech companies is that it sits near the Columbia River and a couple of hydroelectric dams that produce very cheap and very continuous power.

The town also provides good fiber-optic connections and some tax breaks for a relatively modest number of jobs. However, like old industries, the data center uses a lot of power and has sharp elbows. There are also concerns that when the diesel backup generators are used, they emit exhaust fumes, and this leads to “not in my back yard” fights.

In Northern Virginia, Amazon was assessed a $200,000 fine because the company lacked proper permits for its generators, which it has since obtained.

There are about 200 major federal data centers, and the number has quickly quadrupled, so far “without much scrutiny.” As long as Glanz is on the job, that scrutiny could be on the way.

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James Glanz, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, discussed with Peter Slen on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” program about how data centers work as they keep and process Google requests, Amazon purchases, bank inquiries and many other Internet transactions.
Thursday, 10 January 2013 02:00 PM
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