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The good dealer

Ah data. Our new drug of choice. We have a nifty chemist in the form of the Internet, which keeps up a steady supply of habit-forming fixes, and plenty of devices to fuel the addiction. And then there are the vast warehouses which store the virtual stash, growing by the day. Of course, many of these drugs are also medicinal, bringing major advances in business and society. So the warehouses are here to stay – a whole host of them. The aim now is to figure out how to stop them eating so darn much.

Lame excuses

Google shows there's a big difference between cannot and will not.

Data centres are growing at a cracking pace, and are possibly the fastest-growing component of the IT industry, which is already responsible for around 2% of the world's carbon emissions. They're also chugging energy at light speed, although at a slower rate than once predicted. Consulting professor at Stanford University, Jonathan Koomey, conducted something of a landmark study in 2008 on data centre energy consumption, showing use had doubled between 2000 and 2005. He forecast that server energy usage would rise by 76% by 2010, causing the industry to take a closer look at efficiency measures. His latest study found worldwide DC energy use had risen by “only” 56%, with the difference being attributed to the recession and uptake of virtualisation technologies.

While below the expected 76% increase, it's still a pretty sobering number, especially when combined with another stat from DatacentreDynamics. In a survey of almost 5 500 DC operators, the sample consumed 31GW of energy, which is projected increase 19% into 2012 (1GW is roughly equivalent to the power used by 750 000 to one million homes). But that's just a sampling. An infographic from engineering firm ABB puts data centre use globally at 80 000GW of energy annually (almost 1.5 times the amount used by New York City).

So, as the world gets fussier about the way its goods are dealt, data centre heavies will need to practise a little circumspection. Earlier this month, Google raised the curtain on energy-saving measures in its data centres, which it says are among the most efficient in the world. Those who have been itching to get a view into how the company runs its centres on 50% less energy have been granted a backstage pass to see how the giant keeps it servers cool.

Until now, Google has been pretty tight-lipped about its DC operations. But in a Green Blog post announcing a new section, it laid out some of its energy stats and how it goes about downsizing the significant environmental damage caused by megawatt-hungry data centres.

First up, Google is no saint in the emissions stakes – it used 2.6 million megawatt-hours of electricity in 2010, and its data centres make up around 1% of all the energy used in the all data centres worldwide. Given Google's presence, it perhaps isn't as much as many would've thought, but it's still a sizeable chunk of electricity for a single company to be using.

Best of the worst

Since Google went carbon neutral in 2007, it has, however, made substantial investments in both reducing its own footprint and supporting clean forms of energy.

In the new section, called The big picture, Google details some of its recent investments, including two 20-year agreements to buy a total of 214MW of wind-generated energy from specific facilities in Iowa and Oklahoma. Together, these two facilities are expected to provide more than 15% of its total energy use by 2012.

Google has also ploughed funding into renewable energy start-ups through Google Ventures, and Google.org, with beneficiaries including wind company Makani Power and geothermal firm Potter Drilling. In total, it has invested more than $780 million in the renewables sector, including projects capable of generating 1.7GW of power (equivalent to the electricity used by more than 350 000 homes – more than Google consumes).

Google also realises its efficiency and renewable energy efforts can only go so far, and therefore supports several carbon-reduction initiatives, to further lessen its impact on the environment.

Sure, it may all be something of a PR exercise, but at least Google has come out with how much it's actually using, and how it's going about reducing the impacts. Not only does it make the company more accountable, it provides others with some proven methods and tips for greening their own centres.

Many big corporates use the fact that their business is based on energy-intensive infrastructure as an excuse for high emissions or the inability to substantially reduce emissions. Mines, smelters, manufacturer and construction companies are but a few. Google shows there's a big difference between cannot and will not. Yes, the Internet behemoth has helped create and sustain a culture of data-crazed mega-consumers. But the same can be said for a host of other companies that encourage mass consumption, which are secretive about their true impact, and even more so about the methods they use to keep costs down (think APP, BP, ConAgra).

At the heart of it, electricity isn't the problem, the means of getting it are. So making renewables available, affordable and competitive is a major priority for the future. Again, it doesn't grant Google green sainthood, but the company has at least started walking its talk by piloting a 1.6MW photovoltaic system at its Mountain View campus. Other measures include rolling out a 970kW cogeneration unit and solar water heating on office buildings in Mountain View, India, and Israel.

No looking back

Some argue that Google has made people lazy because it's become the default information source for a generation of impatient multi-taskers. But let's be honest; the days of looking things up in books or directories are long past.

In a vastly different cultural environment, new behaviours mean we cannot stem the tide of data. Users can either get informed about which search engines are actually working to reduce their footprint (and just how big it really) is, or carry on supporting another that doesn't put half as much effort into reducing emissions.

Perhaps it's because Google, despite its size, has always been agile and able to change with the times. Perhaps it's the company's ability to integrate the environment effortlessly into its functioning, from honouring famous birthdays in its logo to creating services pretty much as people need them. Perhaps it's down to good image management. Whatever it is, its openness and sustainability focus is something other data dealers could learn from, because as our hit-rates keep rising, we're headed for the kind of high one only comes down from with a fatal crash.


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