The Internet's Hidden Energy Hogs: Data Servers

Data servers run by Google, Yahoo, and others use lots of power, but there's a new push to conserve

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As data centers become more sophisticated, new strategies for energy use are emerging. SoftLayer is catering to small to medium-sized business that "are just becoming overwhelmed with their technology and data storage requirements," says SoftLayer CEO Lance Crosby. So its Virginia facility is smaller than many—with 5,000 servers at the moment, but expandable up to 10,000—and packed densely for efficiency. Big companies like Google and Yahoo, meanwhile, have opted to build their own facilities from the ground up, which gives them more control over a facility's design and engineering, particularly its heating and cooling systems.

Meanwhile, the server farms are also spreading out. Northern Virginia remains popular, in part because it has some of the country's cheapest electricity rates, at about 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with more than double that in a place like Dallas. But new spots are opening up. Yahoo, in something of a back-to-basics approach, has homed in on temperate West Coast climates. "The most efficient ways to keep these servers cool is very simple and elegant—we open the windows," Christina Page, Yahoo's director of climate and energy strategy, says of the company's California site. "Because of the climate, we get free cooling 75 percent of the year."

Low profile. Even in Virginia, post-9/11 security concerns have pushed companies to look further out: to areas south around Richmond and southwest to Harrisonburg, and outside of the 50-mile "blast radius" of Washington. "We've been fairly successful at looking beyond the Northern Virginia boundary," says Michael MacNeilly, business development manager for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. He says the state has identified about 125 potential data center sites, including many in central and southern Virginia.

Given the secrecy associated with data centers, it has taken a while for them to attract national attention. But that's slowly changing. In 2006, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to put together a report on energy consumption by private and federal data centers. The report, released in 2007, found data centers consume about 61 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which is about 1.5 percent of the country's total electricity consumption, or enough to power 5.8 million households.

The report also raised mild concerns about greenhouse gas emissions associated with increased electricity use, but it countered them by noting that the benefits of E-commerce and telecommuting—less driving, for one—might outweigh the downside. To which Google's Teetzel adds a familiar refrain: Without the data centers to power the Internet, global warming awareness would very likely be much lower.

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