Server farms on hot seat amid power woes

While critics say buildings crammed with computer servers are big energy hogs, advocates say there are some benefits and that they don't use as much power as previously thought.

5 min read
Expectations of a long, hot--and dark--summer in power-strapped California are putting some of the technology industry's biggest energy consumers on the hot seat.

Critics say so-called server farms--entire floors or buildings crammed with computer servers--are wasteful energy hogs that take up prime office parks or downtown buildings but offer little in the way of employment or aesthetics. Advocates say they allow companies to concentrate on business and let server farms maintain and protect their computer systems.

It was an uphill battle for U.S. Dataport, a company in San Jose, Calif., that planned a $1.2 billion server farm that would be the world's largest data center. It called for 10 huge air-conditioned warehouses on 174 acres that would constantly draw 180 megawatts of electricity--about enough to provide energy for all the homes in a city the size of Honolulu. The San Jose city council approved the center in early May, and it is expected to open in the second quarter of 2002.

"Getting the permit was really tough," said John Mogannam, senior vice president of U.S. Dataport. "They raked us over the coals about diesel engines, the amount of power we at one point were contemplating pulling off the grid, and the sheer size of the project."

The debate over server farms has sharpened in recent months as severe energy problems have hit California--already home to more data centers than any other state--where officials are struggling to keep the lights on for its residents and businesses.

Earlier this year, a cold snap forced blackouts, and more recently, a heat wave prompted several days of rolling blackouts. At the same time, Pacific Gas & Electric, California's largest utility, has filed for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection, and the Bush administration has pointed to California's energy troubles as an early indicator of a more widespread energy crunch.

But advocates note that data centers are not a new concept; IBM and Electronic Data Systems were building them in the late 1960s. A data center simply pulls together servers that would otherwise be scattered around in individual offices, where they would drain the same amount of energy.

"What this is, is a witch hunt," said Jamie Lerner, chairman of Xuma, a San Francisco-based company that builds and installs servers in data centers. In San Francisco, where there are 13 server farms and several others pending, the board of supervisors recently proposed new, stricter requirements for any future data centers, including a requirement that they be more energy-efficient.

Packing a punch
Although data centers are generally smaller energy consumers than industrial factories such as automobile assembly lines or chip fabrication plants, there is no question they use more energy than regular offices and contribute to the tech sector's general drain on the North American power grid.

The total energy consumed by the Internet information technology sector--from silicon manufacturing to wireless networks, cooling systems, desktop PCs and server farms--is an estimated 8 percent to 13 percent of the nation's electricity, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. The tech industry has come under attack from environmental groups for playing an unduly large role in the rolling blackouts expected to plague California throughout the summer.

Activists have reason to be upset: Server farms, unlike auto and chip plants, must operate 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather or power supply. They must maintain a constant temperature of about 68 degrees.

Lerner says that eight to 10 of the shoebox-size servers use a maximum of about 20 amps to 30 amps a day--about the same as running 10 televisions. A medium-sized business needs between two and 20 servers, while a bigger company may need hundreds.

But servers do not always run at full capacity because they are frequently idle. Therefore, a server farm that has a 200-kilowatt capacity may use as little as 30 kilowatts to 40 kilowatts per square foot of energy. By contrast, the average commercial office building uses roughly 8 kilowatts per square foot, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

That makes data centers on par with an integrated petrochemical plant in terms of energy usage.

They are also quickly becoming part of urban and suburban landscapes. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Exodus Communications has at least a dozen server farms in California and 40 worldwide--most fortified by bulletproof glass, Kevlar-enforced walls, security cameras, and a floor that will withstand earthquakes up to 8.0 on the Richter scale so they can maintain operations in even the most difficult circumstances.

May alleviate congestion
Advocates say the server farms can be a boon to crowded business districts because there are few employees, thus fewer cars in the neighborhood and less pollution. And since servers require emergency backup power--usually diesel generators--a data center that has only one backup system would cause less air pollution and waste than scores of businesses all buying and using their own individual generators.

"It's simply more efficient for one company to build one giant room than for all these companies across the nation to build their own little rooms," Lerner said.

And they may be using less energy than previously thought. Previous academic and government agency research on server farms was often based on the amount of energy that server farms reportedly could provide at full power--a marketing gimmick that may have dramatically inflated the actual number of megawatts needed at any time.

"In the aggregate, these data centers don't use as much power as people think they use," said Berkeley Lab researcher Jonathan Koomey, whose research has determined that at the very upper limit, data centers use 0.15 to 0.2 percent of U.S. energy.

Jim McIntosh, director of grid operations for the California Independent System Operator, provides consumers and more conventional businesses reams of advice on how to conserve: Use appliances during nonpeak hours. Turn down the air conditioning. Turn down the heat. Turn off computers and lights when no one is in the office.

But he was at a loss for advice when asked how server farms might cut down on energy consumption.

"There's not a lot you can do about the servers; those are 24-hour-a-day-scenarios. But there are a lot of ancillary things that you can do in a server farm," McIntosh said. "To the extent you can shift your consumption, even printers, to off-peak hours, that really adds up when everyone in the state is doing that."

Regardless of whether server farms are contributing to California's energy woes, experts say the dilemma is spreading quickly. Server farms, now concentrated in California and suburban Washington, D.C., are moving inland in search of cheaper real estate and energy prices.

"California is just the first domino," said William M. Smith, manager of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Electric Power Research Institute, a company that attempts to solve energy problems for businesses and consumers. "There's no safe haven. You move out of California, and you get into another area where the energy is drying up."