The Greening of Datacenters: Now or Never
By Eric J. Roberson
Prepared for Dr. Tony Chiaviello
ENG 3329 Environmental Writing
Fall 2008 Semester
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ENG 3329-Environmental Writing
The Greening of Datacenters: Now or Never
“The type of thinking that got us into these problems is not the type of thinking that will get us
out.” - Albert Einstein
Technology is everywhere. We live in an information-driven world. People use mobile
phones to talk and send text messages. Laptop computers connect to the internet wirelessly.
Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) are connected to bank networks and allow us access to
money. Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) or cable modems keep us persistently connected to the
internet. Department stores and supermarkets use radio- frequency interface devices (RFID) to
track sales and automatically reorder stock. These are only a few of the technologies that rely on
massive datacenters to function.
Because of the connected world we live in, datacenter sustainability is critical to
maintaining our dependence on technology and is the environmentally-friendly choice to make.
We live in an era of rapidly increasing energy costs while simultaneously realizing that our
traditional reliance on fossil fuels is running short. Without sustainable datacenters there could
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be detrimental impacts on our lives and business continuity, wounded company reputations, and
irreversible damage to our environment.
Causes of Inefficiency
Two major factors underscore sustainability issues in the information technology (IT)
industry, and more specifically datacenters. They are energy inefficiency and toxic computer
waste. Disposing of IT equipment waste presents a number of processing challenges, including
hazardous materials such as lead, cadmium, mercury, brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl
chlorides (Vitello 29). Precious metals such as gold and silver are also contained in computer
and network equipment that could be reused (Vitello 29). All of these elements are found in IT
components at concentrated levels inside datacenters.
Datacenters today contain more equipment then ever (McAdam 2). “The majority of
datacenters were built more than 15 years ago when power requirements and densities were
much lower” (Dignan, et. al. 1). Enterprise networks need more and more servers to support
their applications, and data is growing and being kept on storage for longer periods of time
(McAdam 2). “Companies are forced to build new datacenters not because they are running out
of floor space, but because they need power and cooling beyond what can be provided in their
existing datacenters” (“Report to Congress” 21).
According to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), energy use more
than doubled in datacenters from 2000-2006. It is expected to double again by 2011 (“Report to
Congress” 7). Datacenter power consumption has risen 20 fold over the last decade, and
consumption per square foot tripled in one year from 2004 to 2005 (Dignan, et. al. 1). The
approximate 6000 datacenters in the United States consumed roughly 61 billion kilowatt-hours
(kWh) of energy in 2006 (Kurp 11). By 2011, datacenters will consume about 100 billion kWh
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at an annual cost of $7.4 billion (Kurp 11). “Energy costs are approaching 30 to 40% of overall
IT costs” (Dignan, et. al. 1).
Datacenters also require large amounts of energy for cooling. The average datacenter
cooling is over-provisioned by 2.5 times (Dignan, et. al. 1). Also, heterogenous technologies
collide with different heating and cooling requirements, driving datacenter operating costs up.
Since Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems last up to 25 years while IT
equipment has a relatively short lifespan of two to five years, HVAC systems are often
mismatched with the cooling requirements of IT equipment. Similarly, technology advances in
the amount of time it takes to construct a building to house a datacenter. This makes HVAC
optimization in such a rapidly changing environment more difficult, not only now but also for the
Environmental Impact – A Case Study
Most data center operators do not know what their energy costs are, therefore exact
energy costs are difficult to determine (“Report to Congress” 86). “This has caused datacenter
energy use and efficiency to move to the forefront of public policy, the IT industry, and data
center operator discussions” (Schmidt 18).
Symantec Corporation is a software manufacturing company based in Cupertino,
California. The company employs more than 17,000 people worldwide, and has massive
datacenters around the globe (“Symantec Business Overview”). In 2008, Symantec embarked on
a goal to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions company-wide by 15% by 2012, using 2008 as
the benchmark year (Thompson 1). If Symantec is able to attain this goal, a reduction of 13,000
metric tons of CO2 will be prevented from entering the atmosphere. That is the equivalent
annual electric use for 51,000 homes in the United States (“Symantec Culver City” 1).
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One way that Symantec will accomplish the goal is through datacenter consolidation.
Symantec’s Sunnyvale Data Center closure resulted in an annual cost savings of $450,000 for
computer hardware and $540,000 for energy use (Thompson 1). Another way that Symantec
will meet its ambitious emissions reduction goal is a company-wide power management program
for all PCs. An internal audit revealed that 60% of end user’s computers were left powered on
overnight; additionally, 48% of computers were left powered on over weekends (Thompson 1).
Approximately $800,000 and six million kilowatts of energy is being saved annually by placing
users’ computers in stand-by mode after four hours of inactivity, because the computers do not
need to constantly be connected to the network consuming datacenter bandwidth during non-
business hours (Thompson 1).
Symantec has also earned the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
Gold certification of its existing Culver City campus, and its Dublin facilities have switched to
Airtricity, a renewable electricity utility company. LEED was developed by the U.S. Green
Building Council (USGBC), which is a non-profit organization committed to expanding
sustainable building practices (“Symantec Culver City” 1). All new Symantec facilities that are
built will meet LEED standards. The LEED system has four certification levels – Certified,
Silver, Gold, and Platinum – and it encourages sustainable green building practices in five key
• Energy conservation
• Human and environmental health
• Sustainable site development
• Water savings
• Materials selection and indoor environmental quality
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Earning LEED certification is a prestigious award that highlights a company’s concern for the
well-being of employees and communities, and it underscores a company’s commitment to
minimizing their environmental impact (“Symantec Culver City” 1). Other companies are
following suit such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Sun, and IBM (Myatt 1).
Symantec’s CO2 emissions reduction goal is part of a more comprehensive
environmental strategy that is motivated by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR
policies have increasingly become incorporated into the strategic planning of companies and is
an important contribution of companies to the societies they operate in (Stratling 65). The
responsibilities include economic as well as legal, socio-economic, ethical and moral, and
charitable objectives (Stratling 65). CSR includes sustainable development, risk reduction, and
environmental stewardship, all of which have become a central focus for large companies.
Together, these objectives are an integral part and logical consequence of successful businesses.
“The importance of risk management within companies is increasingly seen to include the
management of reputational and environmental risks” (Stratling 68).
Public climate change concerns are driving a focus on energy conservation as a means to
reduce energy use and CO2 emissions. “Voluntary reporting on environmental issues,
community related topics, and health and safety issues have grown significantly in importance”
(Stratling 69). “With Greenpeace picketing companies like HP to protest the use of potentially
toxic components, it also makes good public relations [sense] to be greener” (“Greening of IT”
12). An increasing number of businesses engage in strategic CSR in order to improve the
reputation of their brands for marketing purposes. Marketers expect that the increasing interest
consumers take into a firm’s social and environmental reputations will influence their purchasing
behavior (Stratling 68).
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Industries such as “electronic manufacturing have opposed regulations by engaging in
communications in the public sphere to influence media, opinion leaders, and the general public”
(Cox 369). Most organizations care about reducing energy consumption, and significant savings
can be realistic. However, sustainability in datacenters only comes with a sharp, persistent focus
on energy efficiency opportunities throughout the IT organization (“Energy Efficiency” 1).
IT Managers remain unsure of how to make use of energy efficient technologies (“IT
Purchasing” 21). Data center operators are trained to manage servers and IT equipment and to
make sure that it runs. Even with the knowledge of the benefits of energy efficiency, staff may
not have the knowledge to monitor and evaluate the energy performance of the data center’s
cooling system, lights, power supplies, or computer equipment (“Report to Congress” 88). Many
IT managers never see the energy bill for their equipment because a separate department often
manages the facilities along with electricity and cooling costs. Likewise, job performance is not
evaluated based on these energy costs (“Report to Congress” 86).
Most companies are predisposed in their approach to datacenter sustainability, often
ignoring the “precautionary principle” for its full value. Redundancy, that is having one server
on standby to take over if another goes down, is seen as integral to data center operations. This
also increases operation costs with a severe impact on sustainability. The appeal to caution and
prudence for data integrity has restricted new and innovative approaches to datacenter operation,
efficiency, and design. As a result, there are increased costs associated with operating
datacenters, and the rampant energy inefficiency leaves behind a huge carbon footprint. The
EPA has determined that “Eliminating redundancy will be impossible and probably undesirable.
The key is to ensure that the redundancy is achieved in the most efficient way possible and that
operators do not create more redundancy than is necessary, running servers whose sole function
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is to take over in case of failure of the principal servers, or cooling below even the overly
conservative range suggested by manufacturers” (“Report to Congress” 87).
The precautionary principle, as applied to datacenters, has no regard for
environmentalism even with knowing that the greater the electricity consumed the greater the
carbon footprint created. Rather, the focus is single-minded on “up-time” or the continuous
availability of servers and networks (Myatt 1). “Although data center operators’ job
performance is rarely if ever based on the center’s energy costs, interrupted operations resulting
from attempts to institute new and untested software, hardware, or cooling innovations can
threaten their jobs” (“Report to Congress” 87). Together, this makes it difficult to create a case
for financial decision makers to make efficiency improvements and show concern for the
environment. Creating the case can be a greater hurdle than implementation of the efficiency
measures themselves (“Report to Congress” 88).
A final and perhaps the greatest barrier to improved energy efficiency is the rapid
increase in new computer applications that has occurred as the cost of processing power has
fallen. With new applications the pace is also quickened with which IT equipment becomes
obsolete and is replaced (“Report to Congress” 88).
Recycling used IT equipment is necessary in order to achieve sustainability. But
expectations should exceed recycling efforts. Companies should begin to support the top
manufacturers who deliver on performance but also take into consideration energy efficiency and
the manufacturer’s commitment to take-back recycling. One manufacturer, HP, helps divert
materials from landfills and alleviates the problem of exporting scrap electronics to developing
countries through its take-back program (Vitello 31). Companies can begin their own internal
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take-back programs too. IBM, for example, has developed a unique internal process that
• evaluating incoming equipment
• extracting parts that can be reused
• re-deploying equipment
• recycling the rest (Vitello 31)
In the absence of formal government regulations, the burden is on industry rather than the
public to drive economic and efficient use of resources in modern datacenters. “There have been
bumps on the road to [IT] regulation” (Vitello 30). But, there have also been attempts to develop
a framework for interpreting ethical issues like sustainability and energy conservation in the
public sector (Fleming and McNamee 136). The rationale for action seems stronger knowing
that business continuity and our connected lives could be interrupted without sustainable
datacenter growth. In fact, at the current rate of datacenter growth, at least ten new major power
plants will need to be built in the United States before 2011 to keep up with the pace (Myatt 1).
The burden must shift from the energy industry to supply more power to more economical use of
resources in the IT industry. “There is huge room for improvement in understanding the facts
and where problems really exist” and to “address the carbon footprint” of datacenters (Dignan,
et. al. 2).
The ability to make an assertion on progress toward datacenter sustainability also
depends on the methods used to measure that progress. The “paradox for conservation is that
knowledge is always incomplete, yet the scale of human influence on ecosystems demands
action without delay” (Cox 337). The mindset of the precautionary principle, or the historical
gold-standard of up-time in the context of datacenters, must shift. Datacenter operators must
also begin to take accountability for the amount of energy their equipment uses.
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The day may not be far off when IT equipment buyers are more concerned about the
energy consumption of a disk drive, server, or switch and whether the parts were recycled rather
than actual acquisition costs (Dignan, et. al. 1). Organizations should begin to use the built in
power management features in IT equipment and attempt to reduce power consumption with new
and innovative technologies. An inventory of all IT equipment and applications should be
taken, and unused servers should be decommissioned so they do not stand by idly consuming
electricity (McAdam 2). Every financial decision maker should demand power and cooling
information from vendors for all new computer purchases. Decision makers should not assume
that similar equipment has the same energy requirements (McAdam 2). Likewise, datacenter
operators are beginning to plan new facilities near renewable energy sources. Efforts toward
LEED certification should be of the utmost importance, and planning the location of new
facilities near sustainable sources of energy such as wind and solar farms or geothermal and
hydroelectric sources should also be a motivating factor. In sum, best practices for going green
include, but are not limited to:
• Evaluate assets from applications to servers
• Decommission or recycle where possible
• Aim for LEED certification and sustainable energy sources
• Monitor energy consumption of all systems in the datacenter
• Train staff and hold them accountable for inefficiency
Together, these initiatives will move datacenters toward sustainability and have a
beneficial impact on the environment. These objectives may improve a company’s bottom line
and reputation and may compel consumer loyalty. But most importantly, our connected world
depends on it.
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