Server Farming

Aug 12 2008   2:40PM GMT

Is ‘green IT’ really dead?

Leah Rosin Leah Rosin Profile: Leah Rosin

Active Directory

An article by Steve Denegri over at Serial Storage Wire, The Data Center’s Green Direction is a Dead End, asks some interesting questions about the “green” movement in IT, and has caused blogger Robin Harris to ask more questions about the severity of the issue.

Denegri makes a few comparisons between the storage industry and the auto industry that are a distraction, and misleading. If the storage industry fails to make greater moves toward energy efficiency, it could have dire consequences.

To get a glimpse of the future of storage, the automotive industry saw a major transition to energy-efficient products beginning in the late 1970s. Since that time, the automotive industry has seen its supplier-to-OEM ratio shrink by a factor of five. If your company is one of the many suppliers to OEMs in the storage industry, then you should recognize that this “green” trend, over the long term, bodes poorly for your company’s existence, and consequently, your personal livelihood. The cold, hard truth is that an ample supply of energy is necessary to grow any business over the long-term, and the storage industry is shying away from the harsh reality that a sufficient amount of energy is, unfortunately, not available to keep the industry growing.

While consolidation may happen to cut costs (we see it all the time in many industries), I don’t know if this is necessarily a result of the “green trend” as much as it is a result of the general economic growth model that exists in which companies are expected to be more and more profitable in subsequent years.

In a study by The Uptime Institute called The Invisible Crisis in the Data Center: The Economic Meltdown of Moore’s Law, a report which was published at roughly the same time as the aforementioned EPA study, the authors cite that the three-year cost of powering a server exceeds the purchase cost of the server beginning next year. Imagine buying a new car faced with the dilemma that the gas required over the first three years of ownership will exceed the cost of the vehicle. Now consider how the storage industry would respond to the problem: furnish the consumer with frequent refreshes of new models of vehicles that get more miles to the gallon. Chalk up yet another example of the storage industry furnishing its customers with products that they do not really want. The customer wants cheaper gas, not the financial burden of a new car every few years.

Sure, some customers want to be able to continue to use their old servers, but many are seeing the benefit of new technologies that provide more computing power at less energy cost. To say that the storage industry will be providing customers with products they don’t really want isn’t necessarily a legitimate statement. Customers can’t get cheaper energy, that’s not how the energy market works today – you pay the price that energy deregulation has helped create. Faced with the impending increase in energy costs cited in the Uptime study and the EPA report, companies are going to be looking for better technologies. Hybrid cars are the automotive industry’s response to higher prices at the pump; and, despite Denegri’s assertion that customers don’t really want a new car every few years, they seem to be selling pretty well (especially compared to the passé Hummer and SUV sales). As we know, these technologies don’t immediately advance to the most optimized version in one step. Instead, new versions come out and companies can choose to upgrade when they do, or hang on and wait until the next better version arrives on the scene.

However, data center computing has achieved its favorable reputation and widespread adoption thanks to its performance, not its energy efficiency. Said another way, the Indianapolis 500 isn’t won by the driver who can make the most laps on a single tank of gas. If, going forward, data center computing is hindered by the need to expand performance not unabated but rather at a predetermined rate of consumed electricity, then the industry simply can’t expand much further, it’s that simple.

While this seems true on the face of it, performance can increase at lower energy consumption levels. One example is the use of solid state drives (SSDs) and Flash memory. Fusion io’s ioMemory technology uses less than 1% of the power required by a traditional SAN. HP has integrated the technology into their c-Class server blades. And EMC and Sun have SSD products incorporated into their new servers.

In fact, what it seems that Denegri is actually advocating is a concerted effort by the IT industry to work to increase power supplies in order to decrease the cost of power in the United States. This is a tall order, as the EPA estimated in its report that the U.S. would have to build 10 additional power plants if data center energy consumption were to continue unabated.

Instead of elevating the rhetoric on the essential need to expand the capacity of the power grid, the storage industry is incomprehensibly embracing the energy efficiency paradigm, deploying marketing strategies that resemble those of the oil and gas industry. The websites of storage companies these days make mention of carbon footprints, green initiatives, and environmental stewardship, clearly having no idea that they are using buzz words that highlight the industry’s dire state. A recent press release from one OEM actually boasted of its efforts to generate electricity at its headquarters from burning its employees’ garbage! With this as the most suitable example, the world is deploying utterly ridiculous new strategies to generate electricity, none of which have any scale to them. Unfortunately, the storage industry is buying into this nonsense.

Necessity is the mother of invention. When energy was plentiful and cheap, people thought very little of their utilization of power. Instead of a luxury, it was deemed a necessity. But as energy costs rise, people respond by conserving. With the unintended consequences of energy production to the environment clearly visible, it does not seem to me to be “nonsense” to buy into the energy efficiency paradigm. If there are more efficient means of accomplishing the same tasks, why not embrace them?

Supply-side economists argue that increased demand causes an increase in supply, and thus growth in all sectors. However, it appears that energy industry deregulation has allowed a situation in which demand has increased while supply has not. This results in higher cost to energy consumers, and higher profits for energy producers. So, perhaps re-regulation of energy companies is what IT companies should be lobbying for? I cannot argue that cheaper energy costs wouldn’t be welcome (I know I was happy when the price of gas at my local station dropped from $4.43 to $4.05). But I’m not sure that storage companies have the wrong idea in embracing efficiency. In the long run, more efficient products will help decrease the potential costs. And regardless of how energy is produced, there will be an impact on the environment that could be reduced through efficiency. The way I see it, the more companies that jump on the efficiency bandwagon without significant detriment to performance, the better it is for everyone.

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