Changing Behavior

Over dinner at a steakhouse in Orlando last week, two other guys from Computerworld and I found ourselves engaged in a lively conversation. No, we weren't talking about the NCAA basketball championship or Major League Baseball's opening day. We were discussing our various middle-age ailments and the health issues our parents had faced. Talk about embarrassing.

Still, it was interesting. One of my colleagues mentioned that his mom had smoked for decades, finally quitting cold turkey when the price of cigarettes hit $5 per pack. Many of us can probably tell similar stories with the same moral: Sometimes it takes an economic incentive to get us to make changes that we know are in our best interest but can't manage to make on our own.

That conversation was fresh in my mind the next morning when Andres Carvallo, CIO at Austin Energy, was giving the opening keynote speech at our Storage Networking World conference. At one point, Carvallo touched on the economics of power consumption. "The cheapest dollar you can spend on energy," he said, "is a dollar spent on conservation."

Now, if that's the case, why isn't energy conservation in the data center a higher priority than it is? Green IT has become a mainstay topic at practically every IT conference around, but real change in the data center still seems conspicuously elusive.

I discussed this topic a year ago with Andrew Fanara, who authored the Environmental Protection Agency's August 2007 report to Congress on server and data center energy efficiency. The report concluded that data centers accounted for 1.5% of electricity consumed in the U.S., but even that may have been understated.

In an e-mail last week, Fanara noted that the 1.5% figure incorporated a low estimate of the electricity consumed for data storage. And although the EPA hasn't updated its figures, Fanara said information from users suggests that there has been no decline in data centers' demand for power despite the recession, and that the 1.5% figure is inching up.

It was also about a year ago that I wrote of my conversation with Donnie Foster, CEO of power management provider Power Assure, about the prospects for government regulation of data center power consumption. He recounted a conversation he had with an official at the Department of Energy.

"I asked him, 'Why aren't you guys looking at regulation?' " Foster told me at the time. "He said, 'Right now, don't even talk about it. After the election, we will have some discussions.' He thinks there will be some changes after the election because he assumes the Democrats will come in, and at that point they'll be much more interested in trying to regulate." My own conclusion, as I wrote back then, was that "regulation is going to happen. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But being unprepared for it is."

So here we are a year later, and sure enough, unprepared data center managers are squirming. As Computerworld's Patrick Thibodeau reported last week, President Obama seems committed to a cap-and-trade energy plan that would, in effect, impose a carbon tax on some forms of energy, including coal-fired electricity. Given the percentage of electricity consumed by data centers, the consequences for IT shops could be severe.

Unfortunately, that is what it will take to bring about change. Just as the prospect of lower health care costs has never been a compelling motivator for people to quit smoking, the promise of lower IT costs yielded by energy conservation has yet to make any meaningful impact on data center power usage.

The problem is that our consumption of energy is, ultimately, a behavioral thing. And we as individuals and corporations have demonstrated a stubborn reluctance to change our behavior unless we're forced to pay a high, direct price if we don't. Of course, there is some consolation in that there are far higher prices to pay than can be counted in dollars.

Don Tennant is Computerworld's senior editor-at-large. You can contact him at don_tennantcomputerworld.com, visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant and follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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