Data centers becoming more energy efficient, thanks in part to cloud computing

While there's room for improvement, a new federal report should help put to rest concerns that energy usage from data centers is getting out of hand.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Thanks to better cooling and powering strategies, better power management and cloud computing, the energy consumed by data centers is under control, according to a new report from the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

After rising rapidly for more than a decade, energy consumption by U.S. data centers started to plateau in 2010. Since then it has held steady, accounting for just under 2 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, the report finds. The growth rate for energy consumption is expected to remain now, even though the total server installed base is projected to increase by 40 percent from 2010 to 2020.

Based on the trend lines, U.S. data centers are projected to consumer around 73 billion kilowatt-hours in 2020, the report finds -- that's around half of what the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council projected last year.

Concern over the spike in energy demands may not too surprising, given that the Berkeley Lab report is the first comprehensive energy analysis of data centers in nearly 10 years. The last one -- conducted by the Berkeley Lab in 2008 for the U.S. Congress -- found that electricity use by data centers was doubling every five years.

"The idea that electricity use is doubling every five years is still commonly believed to this day," Berkeley Lab researcher Arman Shehabi said in a release. "In fact there have been tremendous strides in efficiency. But there are still tremendous opportunities in the near term."

With public concerns over energy consumption aligned with business interests, public and private entities alike have initiated major efforts in recent years -- like Facebook's Open Compute Project -- to make data centers more efficient. Governments and enterprises are exploring ways to efficiently run data centers in hotter climates, investing in innovative storage solutions and turning to renewable energy sources.

Given the current trajectory, the U.S. should see energy savings from 2010 to 2020 that come to about 620 billion kWh, or more than $60 billion, the report says.

The Berkeley Lab team found that larger data centers have made significant advances in operating more efficiently. They're no longer blasting air conditioning to keep equipment cool, and they're relying on "power proportionality" to scale back a server's electricity draw when it's doing less processing. The surge in cloud services is also a factor.

"Data centers used to be considered a fixed cost, but in a cloud environment, whoever is lowest cost provider is going to win. Energy is one of the easier things to optimize," researcher Dale Sartor said in a statement.

While the over all trends are positive, smaller data centers -- which are projected to account for 60 percent of all data center energy use in 2020 -- are still often inefficient.

"The industry growth is primarily in hyperscale data centers, but there's opportunity in the typical corporate or institutional data center," Sartor said. "There are millions of them in closets or small rooms, and they're not very efficient."

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