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 polluters.
- 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 their operations.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. McEnroe said.
- 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. 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.
- 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 business. 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 repeat.”
- 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.