Right Problem but Wrong Approach

Standards and benchmarks have driven considerable innovation. The most effective metrics are performance-based. Rather than state how to solve the problem, they say what needs to be achieved and leave the innovation open.

I’m an ex-auto mechanic and was working as a wrench in a Chevrolet dealership in the early 80. I hated the emission controls that were coming into force at that time because they caused the cars to run so badly. A 1980 Chevrolet 305 CID with 4 BBL carburetor would barely idle in perfect tune. It was a mess. But, the emission standards didn’t say it had to run badly only what needed to be achieved. And, competition to achieve those goals produced compliant vehicles that ran well. Ironically, as emission standards forced more precise engine management, both fuel economy and power density has improved as well. Initially both suffered as did drivability but competition brought many innovations to market and we ended up seeing emissions compliance to increasingly strict standards at the same time that both power density and fuel economy improved.

What’s key is the combination of competition and performance-based standards. If we set high goals and allow companies to innovate in how they achieve those goals, great things happen. We need to take that same lesson and apply it to data centers.

Recently, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) added data centers to their building efficiency standard, ASHRAE Standard 90.1. This standard defines the energy efficiency for most types of buildings in America and is often incorporated into building codes across the country. Unfortunately, as currently worded, this document is using a prescriptive approach. To comply, you must use economizers and other techniques currently in common practice. But, are economizers the best way to achieve the stated goal? What about a system that harvested waste heat and applied it growing cash crops like Tomatoes? What about systems using heat pumps to scavenge low grade heat (see Data Center Waste Heat Reclaimation)? Both these innovations would be precluded by the proposed spec as they don’t use economizers.

Urs Hoelzle, Google’s Infrastructure SVP, recently posted Setting Efficiency Goals for Data Centers where he argues we need goal-based environmental targets that drive innovation rather than prescriptive standards that prevent it. Co-signatures with Urs include:

· Chris Crosby, Senior Vice President, Digital Realty Trust

· Hossein Fateh, President and Chief Executive Officer, Dupont Fabros Technology

· James Hamilton, Vice President and Distinguished Engineer, Amazon

· Urs Hoelzle, Senior Vice President, Operations and Google Fellow, Google

· Mike Manos, Vice President, Service Operations, Nokia

· Kevin Timmons, General Manager, Datacenter Services, Microsoft

I thinks we’re all excited by the rapid pace of innovation in high scale data centers. We know its good for the environment and for customers. And I think we’re all uniformly in agreement with ASHRAE in the intent of 90.1. What’s needed to make it a truly influential and high-quality standard is that it be changed to be performance-based rather than prescriptive. But, otherwise, I think we’re all heading in the same direction.


James Hamilton

e: jrh@mvdirona.com

w: http://www.mvdirona.com

b: http://blog.mvdirona.com / http://perspectives.mvdirona.com

2 comments on “Right Problem but Wrong Approach
  1. Excellent. Thanks for the help.


  2. Heat Pumps says:

    Hello James, I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and want to say keep up ther good work.

    Having read work from messers Crosby and Hoelzle i would agree with the view that the way forward is by using goal-based environmental targets to drive innovation as opposed to prescriptive standards. On a much smaller scale that is the approach that i know alot of my clients are taking.

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