Power Play

It's only a matter of time. If you aren't doing what you need to do to reduce the carbon footprint of your data center by using less electricity, the U.S. government is going to take regulatory action to do it for you.

That's the conclusion I drew last week after taking part in the CIO Solutions Gallery summit on green computing, hosted by Ohio State's Fisher College of Business. The topic was raised during a discussion of the EPA's August 2007 report to Congress on server and data center energy efficiency, which found that as of 2006, data centers accounted for 1.5% of the electricity used in the U.S.

Key in the discussion were Donnie Foster, CEO of power management vendor Power Assure, and Bill Yeack, a former executive vice president at Exodus Communications, a now-defunct Internet hosting pioneer. They contended that the EPA report is flawed because the 1.5% figure was derived from an installed server base that the agency estimated to be 11 million -- a figure they see as grossly understated.

Citing the report's acknowledgment that the estimate doesn't include custom-built servers used by big Internet companies like Google, Yeack claimed that the EPA's numbers "could be understated by as much as 4X." His contention was that the EPA was lowballing the numbers it was sending to Congress because the true figures might well have compelled Congress to enact regulatory legislation.

Yeack, who -- along with representatives from a long list of IT vendors -- provided input to the EPA when it was preparing the report, characterized the process as a "vendor food fight."

"Every vendor and their brother was in this report," he said, "trying to push the policy, the dialogue, in certain directions." That was no doubt the case. But Yeack's suggestion that the EPA and certain vendors were in cahoots to deceive Congress in order to avoid regulation is a stretch.

I contacted Andrew Fanara, the EPA official in charge of writing the report, and Jonathan Koomey, the scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory upon whose research the report was largely based, to get their thoughts on Yeack's position. Both Fanara and Koomey stood by the numbers in the EPA report, and with good reason. As it turns out, those numbers are consistent with independent IDC estimates.

On the matter of government regulation, Koomey declined to comment. But Fanara made it clear where the EPA stands.

"Regulation is probably not the best model for trying to encourage better use of energy in data centers or, more broadly, in IT in general," Fanara said. "The products and markets are very dynamic, change very quickly, and those characteristics make it difficult to apply long-term command-and-control sorts of regulations." He added that he doesn't think it's any secret that most companies would agree with him.

Stressing that he was expressing his own opinion rather than acting as a spokesman on government policy, Fanara said he thinks legislation aimed specifically at data center energy use is unlikely. But he indicated that he wouldn't be surprised to see broader legislation -- something like an emissions tax -- that would clearly have a substantial impact on data centers.

Of course, not everyone in the government sees data-center-specific regulation as all that unlikely. Back at the summit, Foster told me about a conversation he recently had with an official at the Department of Energy.

"I asked him, 'Why aren't you guys looking at regulation?'" Foster recounted. "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."

Without government intervention, that 1.5% figure will double within a few years, because data center managers are doing next to nothing to curb electricity consumption on their own. Regardless of who wins the election or what form the legislation ultimately takes, regulation is going to happen. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But being unprepared for it is.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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