There has been sporadic concern about the energy use of “cloud” data centers, even as recently as last week’s New York Times. From the outside the concern is understandable; cloud data centers consume an enormous amount of energy, they are large visible entities, and their number is growing.
Looking at the surface of a problem is not the same thing as understanding it deeply. Since about 2006, when the first studies of data center energy use raised alarm bells, the industry response has been unified, focused, and socially responsible.
The Green Grid, the premier Industry group focused on resource efficient IT, was launched in 2006 to address systematic improvements in efficiency. The wide adoption of their PUE metric has brought focus and results. While data center infrastructure once consumed half of the data center power, infrastructure now consumes less than 10% for state-of-the-art data centers.
In this same time period there have been huge breakthroughs in server efficiency. Through work at Intel on energy proportional computing the energy used to perform typical computations has been reducing by about 60% per year since 2006.
This rate of improvement is far outside our normal experience and may be hard to fathom. Improving the fuel efficiency of a car at 6% per year would have increased mileage from 20 mpg to 28 mpg – Not too bad. A 60% improvement rate would increase that mileage to 300 mpg. Imagine filling your tank once every six months!
Finally, innovation in the cloud has helped to consolidate workloads and bring them from less efficiently used isolated “server rooms” to highly efficient shared cloud services. This sharing enhances the usage of all compute resources and leads to even greater efficiency.
While direct comparison is difficult, these gains can roll up into one “number” for the overall data center efficiency, figuring in the infrastructure effectiveness, computing efficiency, and how effectively all those resources are used. Taking accepted industry values, the cloud is at least a factor of six times more efficient than the “conventional” case.
Does the data center industry need to do more to improve technology adoption and efficiency? Absolutely. For example, many of the technologies adopted in the efficient cloud have been slow to penetrate inefficient legacy data centers. Has the industry been focused and responsible in its technical innovation? The answer is an unequivocal, “yes.” That work continues.
And I think above all the broader use of computing at an always-improving efficiency will continue to enhance our lives.
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