Monday, January 28, 2013

Searching - for Power: the Internet and electricity consumption

Googleplex, Douglas County Georgia with banks of servers
Some years ago, I prepared a report for World Wildlife Fund on the ways that Information and Communications Technologies can help reduce carbon imprint.  Telecommuting, smart systems to regulate heating and traffic, teleconferencing and many other technology-enabled applications are helping.

But there is a dark side to technology and energy: big data centres consume about 2% of all electrical energy in the US in order to deliver us the instant response and vast storage we consider part of our Internet entitlement[1].  Google alone uses the equivalent of one quarter of the output of a nuclear power plant in its data centres around the world. [2]  Most of that goes not to powering the computers but cooling the environment they run in.

This makes electric power - and its cost - a strategic consideration for these companies.   For instance, Google locates its data centres largely based on the adequacy, reliability and cost of electricity.  Iceland and the Canadian North are making pitches as locations for such data centres, so as to use 'natural cooling'.   Not surprisingly, Google  has invested $1B in green sector ventures.

You may wonder why I am suddenly writing about this topic now, especially after an astonishingly long silence on this blog.  Well, a friend forwarded me some photos taken in various Google data centres, or Googleplexes as they're known.  The pictures show incredibly well organized technology, but they look like abstract art and they are just too beautiful not to share.

The back of servers in Oklahoma, where hundreds of fans (re)circulate cooled air
Server racks in Oklahoma with their cables, tidily coloured

Back-up tape library in South Carolina

Water is so critical to the cooling effort that a lot of effort is devoted to it, as you can see in these final pictures.

Water tanks in South Carolina hold up to 900,000 litres 

And my favourite pic of all:
Colourful water pipes in Georgia

Having started out in the business in 1970, I can remember big data centres, holding a laughable amount of data and computing power compared to today.  My personal back-up system can hold as much data those old huge farms of disk drivers.  And none of them were painted pretty colours either!

[2]  Again from New York Times: