A Cynic’s View of Green Computing

By Michael Feldman

July 29, 2008

The IT industry’s focus on energy efficiency might seem like a “Mom and Apple Pie” type of pursuit, but there may a darker side to the trend. There’s an illuminating article by Steve Denegri featured on Robin Harris’ StorageMojo blog that talks about some of the more depressing ramifications of the green datacenter. Denegri, a storage analyst, posits that the increasing share of the IT energy budget being consumed by storage may portend a shake out for that industry.

He notes that storage vendors — like all hardware vendors — are pushing their latest offerings with a big emphasis on energy efficiency. From the marketing and sales point of view, this looks like a great opportunity to sell new products that aren’t so power-hungry. But that’s the glass half-full perspective. Here’s Denegri take:

[T]hese vendors would be better off recognizing that this heightened attention to energy efficiency is less indicative of a new growth opportunity and, more likely, portends an uncertain future for the industry, as a whole. Countless industries have reached an energy ceiling over the past half century, only to realize, soon after, that revenue potential had peaked.

What follows is a survival contest that only Darwin would love: more combinations at the top of the food chain and significant consolidation or closed doors among the multitude of suppliers. As revenue potential falls, those who are fortunate enough to survive must remain in cost-cutting mode in order to stay competitive.

Doesn’t exactly make you want to buy shares of EMC.

One of the problems with storage system is that, unlike compute and network boxes, they still depend on mechanical devices to operate, and this tends to suck up a lot of power. Until solid state disk technology (SSD) is ready for prime time, tape and disk machines will continue to take an every-increasing share of the datacenter energy budget. Even beyond that, the need for data storage is growing faster than the need for computation, so moving to SSD will only flatten the curve a bit.

Eventually server and networking may end up in the same boat anyway. Up until now, IT managers have been able to take advantage of Moore’s Law to increase performance per watt, and use virtualization to make better use of datacenter hardware resources. But once virtualization achieves 100 percent utilization, no more efficiency can be realized there. And since demand for computing and communication is outracing Moore’s Law, power consumption will become a limiting factor here too. In HPC, where use of server virtualization is almost nil, we already see system size being limited by power costs and infrastructure.

Denegri’s recommendation is that IT vendors should use their collective clout to lobby for increasing the capacity of the energy grid. That will pave the way for industry growth, which he says is predicated on delivering performance and capacity, not energy efficiency. “Green computing is almost the equivalent of battling a raging inferno through the design of smaller matches,” writes Denegri. “If only these consortiums realized that by hailing their energy-efficiency activities, they merely appear content with a reputation of environmental responsibility as they proclaim their industry’s doomed state.”

The other way I think this might play out is for datacenters to go set up shop at energy-rich locations. We can see the beginnings of this with the move by Google, Microsoft and other big players building ultra-scale datacenters along the Columbia River in order to take advantage of the cheap hydroelectric power and cooling along the waterway. Likewise, supercomputing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory benefits from the large energy resource of the Tennessee Valley Authority. One could imagine the next generation of supercomputing being hosted in Iceland, where geothermal energy resources are abundant and are far in excess of local demand.  (I’m also guessing it’s fairly simple to cool big petascale machines in Iceland.) Of course, not all computing and storage can be relegated to remote sites.

Down the road, datacenter operators may decide to develop and build power plants as part of their infrastructure, like aluminum producers did for their smelting operations. In this case, datacenters could even sell off excess energy capacity to help defray operating costs. Especially if power distribution isn’t a consideration, exotic technologies like solar-powered hydrogen generation and sea thermal gradient power could be considered.

One thing is certain: the dynamic between energy resources and IT is going to reshape the computing landscape. But IT doesn’t have to play the victim here. Innovation is what it does best, and I’m hoping this is one area where the market will work its magic.

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