Are data centers toxic?

The New York Times is getting criticism over its data center series. Beginning the series with a 2006 anecdote about a near server meltdown at Facebook, three processor generations ago, was not an auspicious beginning.

Dan Woods at Forbes questions the server utilization rate data cited in the story, and argues that it isn't really telling what’s going on in leading data centers. Rich Miller at Data Center Knowledge raises a set of pointed questions.

Nonetheless,The Times series by James Glanz brings needed attention to environmental issues around data centers.  These are issues that deserve a national stage. People should know how the messy side of the information economy works, from its smoke spewing generators to riots at China's Foxconn

Among the places The Times looks at is Quincy, Washington, and points to it as something of a ground zero for the environmental issue.   

IDG New Service reporter Nancy Gohring spoke with people in Quincy more than a year ago when this town, pop. 6,000, was considering data center projects that would bring some 141 back-up diesel generators.

Gohring spoke to former Quincy Mayor Patty Martin who said that people, at the time, weren’t aware of the emission risks.  "The people have to say we're willing to accept the risk based on the benefits. But the people don't know what they are," said Martin in July, 2011. The Times updates her fight.

Increased national attention about data centers will help arm community planners and the public dissenters with questions and arguments for challenging data center development schemes. These are people too easily dismissed by economic development agencies and elected officials.

It may also prompt some businesses to examine, more carefully, the environmental consequences of their data center operations.

Most data center managers are risk averse.  But that should not stop them from considering data center temperatures near American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)  environmental guidelines to reduce power, or from being more aggressive about virtualization.

The big cloud computing centers are supposed to be exceptionally energy efficient, but the situation in Quincy makes one wonder whether if even the most advanced data centers have a handle about how often to test back-up generators.

The economic benefit of mega data centers to local communities is unproven. It is modest at best. Most of these facilities, once the construction phase is over, will employ relatively few people. Tax breaks limit local revenues. The ability of data centers to generate any economic spin-off, aside from local contracting, is a question. An important issue is whether data center power demands will raise electric rates for neighbors.

The U.S. Department of Energy has been encouraging the industry, from servers to the entire data centers, to become more efficient. The government has put its focus on measurement and best practices, and, so far, not regulation. Whether that will change or not, may be up to the industry.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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