Sustainability and Efficiency: Business Concerns Drive Progress in Data Center Industry

Abstract of modern high tech internet data center room with rows of racks with network and server hardware.

It isn’t terribly hard to stumble across opinions that cloud and data center providers should be more conscious of the need to use renewable energy.  Nor is it much of a debate. Of course they should.

Here’s a good example of genre.  The title (The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge) and the dramatic conclusion “…how we build the future frankly determines whether we have a future at all” are both overwrought, but this Atlantic article is worth reading.

Despite the preachy tone, there is some value in the article.  For instance, it is critical of PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) as a metric, and it is worth noting that the more expertise individuals have in the nuts and bolts of data center operations, the less seriously they take PUE.

What is underappreciated is the extent that the data center industry has been a driver in the desire for renewable energy.  Tech leaders such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix, and the like will always work to appear as leaders in the use of renewable energy and overall power efficiency.  For these giants, nearly everyone is a customer and the last thing they want is to get on the wrong side of conservation activists whose complaints could potentially damage their brand.  From a public relations perspective, working toward renewable energy is good business for these highly-visible tech leaders.

In most instances however, lower profile enterprises and corporations that are under the radar of energy activists will make decisions on power efficiency and renewable energy only if the financial impact is neutral or positive.  Most are looking to check just enough renewable/sustainability boxes to appear like they’re doing their part, but they aren’t going to absorb significant cost to do so.  Their policies and decisions are not highly visible so they’ll choose a data center or cloud provider that will better help them meet their business goals.  For most, the use of renewable energy will be only a small factor in an overall calculation.

The vast majority of companies do, however, have an interest in reducing their energy usage, but not just to be good corporate citizens.

Financial Self-Interest Drives Power Efficiency:  Any organization with financial goals is extraordinarily motivated to reduce power costs.  Power is the largest technology budget item for many large enterprises, and more efficient use of power positively influences the company’s bottom line.  A large cloud provider or multi-tenant data center will move mountains for relatively minor power efficiency improvements. The financial impact of even marginal improvement can be significant.  A better financial result is far greater motivation than winning the approval of environmentalists and commentators.

The Society-Wide Impact of Data Center and Cloud Engineers: Largely due to the financial impact, well-funded, talented engineers have driven significant power efficiency in the data center space.  This progress is shared within the cloud and data center space and is also available for adoption by those in other industries.

Energy Use Would Not Disappear if Netflix Did: Consuming media in other ways, whether driving to the movies or a video store (remember them?) or having a product manufactured and shipped to you, has an environmental impact and carbon footprint.  Life will be lived, and the increasing digitization of all aspects of our economy frequently replaces other activities.

The IT infrastructure world is under a microscope when it comes to energy issues, which is understandable.  Large segments of the industry have responded by helping to increase power efficiency and drive the use of renewable energy.  Whether for PR purposes, the desire to reduce costs/improve profits, or simply out of the desire to be good corporate citizens, much of the industry is exhibiting responsibility and driving innovation.