Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Debate on Power, pollution and the Internet, Data Barns

There was a fascinating series in this Sunday’s New York Times that highlights the ugly byproduct of the digital age we live in: energy consumption driven by digitization. (“Power, pollution and the Internet” and “Data Barns in a Farm Town, Gobbling Power and Flexing Muscle”)

The author, James Glanz starts off by making an argument that "foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness." A viewpoint like this is bound to have strong critics and digirati and technologists are sharply divided over how to respond to this article. A few critiques:

Dan Woods counters the article with a Viewpoint in Forbes: Why The New York Times Story 'Power, Pollution, And The Internet' Is A Sloppy Failure. Primarily starting off with the utility argument: "Roads aren’t 100 percent utilized. The telephone system isn’t 100 percent utilized. They are there when they are needed."

Richard Fichera for Forrester Research makes a similar argument in “Data Center Power And Efficiency – Public Enemy #1 Or The Latest Media Punching Bag?” "The simple fact is that if we want to live in an information society, we need the plumbing to support it. That is perhaps the most salient observation that the New York Times has made — there really is no cloud, just more and more really big data centers."

The fact remains, most of us, even techies and geeks would be quickly out of out our depth when it comes to intricacies of calculating environmental impact of data centers. Some of the analysis is based on complex calculations and number crunching but a lot more on empirical knowledge, inputs from analysts and other closely guarded sources. I agree with James when he states “Improving or even assessing the field is complicated by the secretive nature of an industry”

Another key argument made by James in his NYT piece is on the risk aversion of data center managers. The article quotes a vendor saying, "A crash or a slow down could end a career."  Dan Woods counters "There are a number of problems here. Anyone doing a hard job that is mission critical lives in fear. The people operating the printing plants at The New York Times have the same fear as the data center operators. Data center operations don’t have a special fear, just the normal one involved in doing a good job"

It is true that most of us in hi-tech operate under the environment where "fear" of "business" in a sense afraid to say No! even to bizarre requirements. A case study from my consulting days:

A fortune 500 retailer had a disaster recovery (DR) contract with a tier-1 technology vendor. This was in addition to the contract to host their data centers in the vendor’s “cloud”. One year, the periodic DR test failed to meet the RTO, RPO objectives, and the matter quickly got escalated to the board of directors. It was decided that it was more than a business continuity risk, a market perception/reputation risk, that the retail giant couldn’t afford.

The solution? The retail giant decided to invest in their own data-center, exclusively to support disaster-recovery, while the vendor continues to host all business (IT) applications from their cloud-based data center. Power consumption and pollution be damned: Risk of failure was the driver, with the cost being just one additional constraint!

The offshoring, globalization angle

While on the topic of environmental impact of data centers, it would be interesting to review the redundancy global organizations are building while offshoring technology services and business processes. The western world has been steadily outsourcing manufacturing to China during the past few decades and is only now waking up to the impact of pollution and emissions from there. Similarly, large IT development centers and call-centers in the west are steadily being Bangalored to India, China and Philippines and elsewhere. Along goes power guzzling servers, network hubs, desktops and laptops that starting to suck scarce power from an already stretched infrastructure in third world countries. All this in addition to “production” servers to run live business applications out of data centers/cloud in native countries.

Ref my earlier post on power grid failure in India  and a recent article  One killed in Indian nuclear power plant protests Wonder how much of this is attributable to globalization, offshoring and power guzzling data centers?

Argument and counter-views aside, the discussion in NYT article is really about the environmental impact of server farms, internet data centers, corporate data centers and the cloud.  I love the way Richard Fichera summarizes “ Despite the NY Times’ sudden discovery of the problem, the IT industry has been working diligently on solving these problems for years and will continue to make progress long after the mainstream media has gone on to expose killer mimes and the hazards of the exploding population of Frisbee-playing bears. The simple fact is that if we want to live in an information society, we need the plumbing to support it. That is perhaps the most salient observation that the New York Times made — there really is no cloud, just more and more really big data centers.”

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