Data Center Power Consumption

Written By Nick Hodge

Posted December 2, 2009

More and more energy is being devoted to host the information contained in this e-mail… and to the other petabytes of data that flow back and forth every day containing everything from pictures to stock quotes.

 Value SI
 1000  kilo (k)
 10002 mega (M)
 10003 giga (G)
 10004 tera (T)
 10005 peta (P)
 10006 exa (E)
 10007 zetta (Z)
 10008 yotta (Y)

In a brief chat with our head of e-Commerce, he said that just one of our servers has a capacity of nearly one terabyte per month. That’s 1,000 gigabytes.

But that’s tiny compared to the total amount of data changing hands over the internet every single day. And the amount of data is growing.

In 1993, total internet traffic for the year was 100 terabytes. Today, you can get a terabyte of storage on a single computer, and Cisco estimates traffic at about 160 terabytes per second.  

That means total annual internet traffic is now measured in zettabytes… making the 2009 internet about 50 million times larger than the 1993 internet.

What’s Powering All that Data?

In 1993, the National Center for Supercomputer Applications thought the "only solution" to handle increasing internet traffic was "to take a $15 million supercomputer away from its normal scientific number-crunching duties and employ it full-time as an electronic librarian."

Today, Google alone spends $3 billion a year on "digital librarians."

No one anticipated this drastic rise in demand for data storage.

And all this information is being stored on remote servers in clandestine locations. Ours, for example, is tucked away in a field outside of San Antonio.

It’s a monolith of a building, encompassing the area of several football fields. Inside, thousands of servers hum… undoubtedly serving up millions of articles, pictures, videos, and more.

And every one of those servers needs juice. Lots of it.

Powering the Cloud

In 2005, a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that "The total power demand [for internet infrastructure] is equivalent (in capacity terms) to about five 1000MW [megawatt] power plants for the U.S. and 14 such plants for the world.

The total electricity bill rings in at $7 billion dollars. That was double the bill in 2000 — just five years prior.

And the costs are on the rise.

Intel executives have said publicly that 2010 will be the year that lifetime electricity costs (about 4 years) for a single server outweigh the sticker price of the hardware. That’d be like buying a $25,000 car that used more than $6,000 per year in gas.

You’d be in the market for a more efficient car, right?

That’s exactly what internet executives are thinking. At the recent Emerging Technologies conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one executive was quoted saying that "profits will deteriorate dramatically if data center costs don’t get contained."

More Efficient Data Centers

So in less than a decade, electricity costs for data storage will have tripled. And profits are at risk if these costs aren’t controlled.

We’re talking about the profits of big companies here: Google, Yahoo!, Amazon…

And they’re all about to spend billions upfront to curb rising costs in the long run.

Sitting in the audience at GreenBeat a few weeks ago, I watched a start-up company called Locust Storage win the innovation competition.

Locust — which was in stealth mode until the event — has a server that uses 90% less power than its competition.

It doesn’t even have a power cord. Since it only uses a tiny bit of juice, the device gets its power from an Ethernet cord.

And when it isn’t being asked to serve up videos or images, it stores excess power in on-board batteries. It can even communicate with the utility, so the server knows when a peak even is occurring… and can actually feed stored electricity back to the grid.

Locust easily won the innovation competition. And I have no doubt that they’ll be consumed by a giant — Cisco, EMC, or someone else — in short order, probably giving its founder a multi-million dollar payday.

But installing servers that use power over Ethernet is just one of the ways that large IT companies are looking at cutting data storage costs.

Green building design, load management, real-time electricity pricing, and more are all being leveraged to help reduce data center power costs.

It’s all a part of smart grid development. And the companies making it happen are also making investors filthy rich.

They won’t stop until all the excess energy waste is trimmed from the system… an endeavor valued at nearly $300 billion.

All of it is up for grabs as the smart grid becomes a reality.

Call it like you see it,

Nick Hodge


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