The high price of cloud computing

Google's two new computing centers are seen from the air June 15, 2006 in The Dalles, Ore.

Kai Ryssdal: We're supposed to be, what, a decade into the paperless office by now? Isn't that where word processing and email was supposed to get us? Truth is, it's entirely possible -- likely even -- that we're using more paper now than a decade ago. And you can add something else to the environmental costs of all that emailing and Googling and gaming: the electricity.

By some estimates, we use more power getting and staying online than Detroit does making cars. But the big energy drain isn't laptops and desktops at all. It's the hidden side of the online world. As Eve Troeh explains from the Sustainability Desk.


Eve Troeh: Every gadget seems headed for the Internet -- e-book tablets, Wi-Fi TV. We're already spending fewer minutes on our cell phones, and more megabytes. People are talking over the Internet, with apps like Skype.

That's how I reached Laura Didio. She follows trends for big tech companies.

Laura Didio: OK, so it looks like it's recording the call.

Somewhere, powerful hard drives process our conversation. They do that in a data center. That center could be a few floors of a downtown office building or a warehouse in an industrial park. Whenever you visit a website, watch a video on your cell phone, instant message your coworker, racks of hard drives blink and whir and use a lot of electricity.

Didio: The numbers are mind-boggling.

Two percent of all U.S. electricity now goes to data centers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The price tag?

Didio: $7.4 billion in 2011. That's going to double in the next three years.

Electricity has become the biggest cost for processing data -- more than the equipment to do it, more than the buildings to house that equipment. Didio says data centers have not innovated much on saving energy. Even a common step that consumers take...

Didio: Something simple like sleep mode on their servers.

...can be a no-go if it might compromise data center performance. These companies pride themselves on speed and security. Just getting into a data center took lots of phone calls, paperwork and an official guide.

Internap: Guest sign in for Internap.

Mike Higgins is a senior V.P. at Internap. It hosts data for companies around the U.S. As our data needs grow, more companies need to rent space in a place like this -- a huge, former airplane hangar near Seattle.

Mike Higgins: One of the reasons this market is attractive is that Seattle has a very low cost of power, one of the lowest in the country.

Massive air conditioners and fans blow 24 hours a day. Higgins says new data centers are built for energy savings. This one lets some outside air flow in.

Higgins: Cold air's coming down from the ceiling, going under the floor and coming out the perforated tiles.

That cuts the power bill, and lets Internap charge less. Other centers are starting to do the same.

Christian Belady: We no longer charge for space. We charge for power.

That's Christian Belady. He's worked in data centers for 20 years. He now heads Data Center Advanced Development at Microsoft.

Belady: We call that DAD, because I happen to be one of the older guys.

Belady says the industry needs a head-to-toe energy makeover. Take the hard drives -- they're designed to work in 95 degree heat, but data centers keep them at a much cooler optimal temperature. What a waste, Belady says.

Belady: It was a disconnect in my mind.

So to prove that hard drives are more hardy, he ran what's become an infamous IT experiment.

Belady: So we just took a tent and threw in some servers, and ran it and everything ran fine. Leaves got sucked up to the front of the servers. We would just peel 'em off, and everything kept running.

That's led Microsoft to put data servers in lightweight, vented pods instead of hulking buildings. Google's making data servers that can float offshore, cooled by ocean breezes. HP has plans to put data servers near farms, and power them with methane gas from cow pies.

But Christian Belady at Microsoft wants to evolve even further. His goal?

Belady: How do we make the data center disappear?

One way could be to build data servers right into our gadgets and laptops and other systems, and spread out the energy cost. He says it's coming.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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