I’m Interested in data center resource consumption in general and power is a significant component of overall operating cost and also has impact on the environment so, naturally, it gets most of the focus when discussing data center resource consumption.  As with all real issues, there is always a bit of hyperbole and some outright confusion in some of the reports focused on resource consumption. In many cases I’ve spoken with the authors, at times I’ve written about it more broadly (Greenpeace, Renewable Energy, and Data centers). David Linthicum of Infoworld has made similar points in his recent article:  Is Your Cloud Green Enough: That’s the wrong question.

In a widely sighted 2007 article EPA Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Efficiency, the EPA estimated that data centers were consuming 1.5% of the 2005 US Energy Budget and, what was really troubling was, this number was expected to double over the subsequent 10 years. This report generated a fair amount of excitement and interest at the time and it’s subsequently been quoted so many times that it is still largely accepted as fact.

It’s now been 10 years so we can just go back and check on the original EPA prognostication. The growth of data center usage that they predicted appears to have happened at roughly the scale they estimated. But aggregate data center power consumption is still about the same as it was 10 years ago when they first looked at the issue. The progress on increasing server and overall data center efficiency has very close to zeroed out the expected increase in power consumption. From an earlier blog post Data Center Renewable Power Done Right:

The data on 2010 is now available and the power consumption of datacenters in 2010 is currently estimated to have been in the 1.1 to 1.5% in 2010. Almost no changes since 2005. Usage has skyrocketed. Most photos are ending up in the cloud, social networking is incredibly heavily used, computational science has exploded, machine learning is tackling business problems previously not cost effective to address, much of the world now have portable devices and a rapidly increasing percentage of these devices are cloud connected. Server side computing is exploding and yet power consumption is not.

It’s a pretty good story of technology successfully battling an industry problem. From 50 Years of Moore’s Law: IEEE Spectrum Report, there is an interesting article Moore’s Law Might be Slowing Down, but not Energy Efficiency where the authors report:

Encouragingly, typical-use efficiency seems to be going strong, based on tests performed since 2008 on Advanced Micro Devices’ chip line. Through 2020, by our calculations for an AMD initiative, typical-use efficiency will double every 1.5 years or so, putting it back to the same rate seen during the heyday of Moore’s Law. These gains come from aggressive improvements to circuit design, component integration, and software, as well as power-management schemes that put unused circuits into low-power states whenever possible. The integration of specialized accelerators, such as graphics processing units and signal processors that can perform certain computations more efficiently, has also helped keep average power consumption down.

In my view, we are just getting started and easily have another 10 years of fast paced innovation in front of us.



In 2009 in Data Center Efficiency Best Practices, I said it’s “not just about power” and argued that water consumption is the next big natural resource issue for data centers after power. I think it’s still true today and expect that water consumption will continue to need to be managed carefully by all data center operators. A recent Wall Street Journal article written Drew Fitzgerald Data Centers and Hidden Water Use recently came out referencing this data point and talking about the importance of data center water conservation especially in light of the current water shortage in California.

Taking a mathematical perspective, the water problem is actually reducible to the power problem since power and plentiful sea water can be turned into drinking water using techniques such as reverse osmosis (R/0) on polluted water or even sea water. In fact R/O plants can be found at some data centers today used in many applications from reducing the mineral content in blow down water leaving the data center (water discarded from the water tower condensate loop) through to purifying cooling water entering the facility for use in spray cooling systems (Open Compute Mechanical System Design). I even have an R/O system on my boat to produce drinking water from sea water. They are certainly handy devices but R/O systems aren’t magic. They are fairly expensive and power intensive so the water issue remains one worth working upon. After power, it’s still the most important environmental resource consumption issue facing the industry.

Just as we can actually create drinking water from either polluted water or sea water, it’s also possible to completely eliminate the use of water in data center cooling. The reason this isn’t already done broadly is that the commonly used water-free cooling systems are far less power efficient.  So water-free data center operation doesn’t look like the best environmental choice.

Two examples that I really like of innovative ways to reduce or eliminate water consumption in data centers without excessive power consumption are the Google St. Ghislain Belgium facility that is cooled using waste water that is first purified on site and the Google Hamina Finland center that is cooled using salt water. It is of course worth mentioning that one of the best ways to consume less water in cooling data centers is to cool them less and, over the last 10 years, this has approach has had a huge impact on overall consumption that has not yet rippled through the entire industry.

Just as was the case with power, it’s easy to see big water consumption numbers and over-react. This is an area where the industry will keep innovating and I expect to see results along the line as we have seen with power where compute usage has gone up dramatically but power consumption has not.

Mark Andreesen is good at seeing past general beliefs and frequently referenced statistics and offering a different and oftentimes more thoughtful perspective. In looking at the data center water consumption issue, Adreesen starts by noting that the water consumption of California’s 800 data centers is a big number but then points out that, in the US alone, newsprint production consumes a prodigious 109,500,000,000 gallons per year. He then argues that the move to online news consumption is actually reducing water consumption. The original Andreesen tweet storm:

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

1/Interesting analysis in @WSJ of the current water use of California’s 800 commercial computer datacenters:http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10007111583511843695404581067903126039290 …

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

2/California’s datacenters consume 158,000 Olympic sized swimming pools of water per year, or 104,280,000,000 gallons of water per yaer.

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

3/That sounds like a lot. Enough, in fact, that one might wonder what else might consume that much water every year.

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

4/It turns out that a single day’s supply of newspaper newsprint requires about 300,000,000 gallons of water.https://www.nycwatershed.org/pdfs/WaterTriviaQuestions.pdf …

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

5/Multiply by 365 days per year, producing the US’s annual consumption of newsprint consumes 109,500,000,000 gallons of water per year.

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

6/109,500,000,000 gallons per year for US newsprint > 104,280,000,000 gallons for California datacenters. Interesting!

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

7/Of course newsprint consumption is falling due to substitution by online media! And we know online news is a very small % of online use.

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

8/So, for a small fraction of the water use by datacenters, over time we can likely eliminate nearly all of the water use for newsprint.

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

9/Not to mention reducing the deforestation caused by newsprint production. Less tree use, less water use = environmental win/win!

Marc Andreessen ‏@pmarca 5h5 hours ago

10/It’s interesting to consider what other current environmental resource uses will be reduced or eliminated by datacenters & online media!

As always, an interesting perspective. The industry will keep working on power and water conservation, utilization, and sourcing and I expect another decade of innovation to be coming but it’s good to get a reminder once in a while on how Data Center consumption relates to the rest of the world.