Can we make the internet less power hungry?
- By Michael Dempsey
- Correspondent of “Business Technology”.
What we do every day involves the data center. Shopping online, streaming TV shows, reading this story. they all need data to be stored and accessed.
The immediacy and convenience of these services is great, but it comes at a cost.
Data centers need huge amounts of electricity to keep them going; a large facility will use as much electricity as a medium-sized city.
The situation is particularly acute in Ireland, where a relatively small electricity grid hosts a large number of data centers.
More than 20 of these are in Dublin, where Microsoft and Amazon have built very large sites.
That alarming demand for electricity has forced the Irish government to take action.
Sustainability is now a prerequisite for new data center approvals with the government stating that “newly built data centers must be able to flexibly reduce energy consumption”.
The technology is being deployed in hopes that data centers will place less of a burden on power grids.
The new facility, opened at Grange Castle on the outskirts of Dublin, is connected to a power grid controlled by software from Eaton in partnership with energy giant Enel.
If the wider electrical grid is under stress, the power to the data center is turned off and the backup systems come on immediately.
All data centers operate sophisticated standby systems that allow operation in the event of any power outage.
The first line of defense for this is uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). These are effectively sophisticated batteries that are cut off immediately in the necessary seconds and run until the diesel generator starts up or mains power is restored.
At Grange Castle, Eaton’s UPS intervenes and releases power to the grid when the grid’s electrical frequency, measured in hertz, fluctuates in a way that indicates it is under stress.
This could happen as electricity from unsustainable sources, such as Ireland’s huge wind farms, declines.
Many data centers are already offloading demand from the grid at pre-set times using established technologies from companies such as Schneider Electric and Vertiv.
But the Grange Castle layout is the first time a live, dynamic relationship has been established between a data center and the national grid.
Ciaran Ford is a physicist from Eton specializing in data centres. He says Eaton’s system acts as a pressure valve that takes the data center off the grid for valuable breaks.
Data center owners are paid for this flexibility by the Irish network operator.
Jay Dietrich of the Uptime Institute, which certifies data centers for resiliency and reliability, says revenue is probably the main reason data center owners want to be flexible.
“They are not doing it for noble reasons. They do it for cash flow and revenue,” said Mr. Dietrich, whose career has included working on energy policy and climate change at IBM.
Ireland represents a global problem.
In July 2022, London’s governing body, the Greater London Authority, wrote to housing developers in the west of the capital warning that they could face a long wait for new developments to come online.
Despite London’s housing shortage, new residential projects could be delayed for a decade as data centers in the Thames Valley increased electricity capacity, preventing the area from providing electricity for London’s growing population.
How did we get here? Eaton’s Mr Ford says this is really due to the explosive growth of cloud computing; a trend that has seen companies outsource much of their data storage and processing to third-party companies such as Amazon and Microsoft.
He notes that the use of the term “cloud” is highly misleading because it is “a very physical thing.”
The cloud does not float in the atmosphere, it consists of computer servers with a large appetite for electricity.
Ireland’s example highlights how a combination of environmental concerns and concerns about network capacity has sparked a race to save the reputation of the data center industry.
New technological fixes are being developed.
Pure Storage, a data management business based in the northern Italian town of Brunello near the Swiss border, is putting the data center on a digital diet by cutting bits and bytes and collecting redundant information.
Storage devices at Brunello use software that detects when information is unnecessarily duplicated and deletes that material. This process of constant review and removal keeps growing volumes of data at bay.
It may seem like a routine job for an IT department, but this program is up against the data center industry’s biggest enemy. It reduces the terrible appetite for electrical power that characterizes all data centers. Pure claims it can cut data center power consumption by up to 80%.
Clean executive James Petter, who came into technology via the British Army and Coca-Cola, takes a hard-nosed approach to the issue of energy consumption and has no illusions about how important it is.
“We design our equipment around the principle of reducing electricity use. And right now, all the inquiries we get from prospective data center customers are about power consumption.
“They were asking about technology and price in the beginning, but today carbon emissions and renewables are important. It’s all about carbon footprints, everybody’s running.”
He says this trend has been seen in the past two years as energy consumption has increased and dominated the “CEO agenda”. Speaking from Riyadh, he describes how the last three data center suppliers he spoke to in Saudi Arabia were deeply concerned about their carbon footprint.
Mr. Petter is reluctant to admit that there may be a limit to how much data we can store. “The macro trend is the growth of data. I think the innovation will continue, there will be new ways of storing data.”
It’s not in the tech industry’s commercial interest to set limits on how many photos we all store in the cloud.
But if data centers are to gain planning permission and retain public approval, they need to focus on imaginative steps that reduce massive energy consumption.