Q&A with Marshall Brain

Marshall Brain, a writer, blogger, and inspiration of knowledge for me personally, answered a few questions I had for him about the growth of data center energy use.  Marshall is best known as the founder of How Stuff Works but he has also has written a number of books, essays, and articles ranging from technology to teen inspiration to business.  Given his unique and broad industry perspective, I asked him about the factors driving data center growth.  If you would like to learn more about Marshall, check out his personal website at MarshallBrain.com.

Dan:  In the last 5 years, I have been hearing about new data center facilities that are larger and more powerful than the one before them. Why are data centers growing so big and at such a rapid pace?

Marshall: The modern “data center” is a building that houses rack-mounted computers, their power sources, their wiring, their cooling systems and their network connections/routers. This trend started in the later 1990s and has been gaining momentum ever since. What’s been happening in the last 5 years is the growth in massive facilities housing tens of thousands of servers in a single building.

Data centers are growing because the amount of functionality available from web sites has been growing. Also, the amount of information we store “in the cloud” and retrieve from the cloud has massively increased. Think about YouTube alone. It is only 6 years old. Today it is storing billions of videos (massive amounts of hard disk space) and serving over a billion video requests per day (requiring a massive number of servers to respond to the requests). Then there is the internal redundancy necessary to handle point failures as well as traffic surges, plus location redundancy to handle things like natural disasters that take out entire facilities. And YouTube is just one site. Facebook is another. Google, Yahoo, Bing, Amazon, Ebay…. the number of massive sites like these running on millions of server machines has fueled the growth of large data centers.
These companies, at this kind of scale, with the number of services they offer today, simply did not exist a decade ago. That’s why there has been so much growth in the data center sector.

Dan:  Since data centers consume an enormous amount of electricity 24×7, do you see their rapid growth putting a strain on the electric grid and having a significant contribution to global energy consumption?

Marshall:  Data centers do consume massive amounts of electricity. I live in North Carolina, and a number of large data centers have been built here recently. One reason for that is the availability of power that comes from the loss of things like textile mills. This article points out: “Spokesman Jason Walls says data centers are one of Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp.’s economic-development targets. Its electricity rates are among the lowest in the nation, and it has plenty of generating capacity, partly because of the state’s shrinking manufacturing base.”

Data centers do consume a fair amount of power – this article puts it this way: “As per the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), electricity consumed by servers in the U.S. data centers represented approximately 1.5 percent of the national electricity use. The power and cooling infrastructure that supports IT equipment in data centers also uses significant energy, accounting for 50 percent of the total consumption of data centers.” 1.5% is a lot. But keep in mind that refrigerators represent something like 14% (see here), and we don’t really worry about it.

Dan:  Do you know of any technologies that are used to reduce energy consumption in data centers?

Marshall:  There are several things that can help lower the energy consumption of data centers:

1) Reduction in CPU power consumption. There has been a big push to lower the power consumption of high-end chips. Things like Atom processors further reduce power per computation, and there are some server architectures that take advantage of that (see below).

2) Google has taken some innovative steps to reduce power in its data centers and has been open about its techniques (e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRwPSFpLX8I) to help spread its power-saving knowledge.

3) Locating data centers in cold climates is an obvious way to lower cooling costs. Example:

Dan:  The energy density of servers continues to grow as server manufacturers are able to add more chips and processing power to the board.  If this trend continues, how will the cooling requirements be able to keep up?

Marshall:  Generally speaking, chips are consuming less power total, and much less power per computation. And low-end chips tend to have very favorable power characteristics. Here is one example or a possible trend – “The result of that effort was unveiled today in the form of the SeaMicro SM10000, a datacenter server that squeezes 512 Atom processors into 10U of space and draws 2KW of power. SeaMicro claims that the server provides the same SPECINT performance as a Dell Xeon server in one-fourth the space and at one-fourth the power.”

Dan: Globally we are advancing towards a complete digital world where all of our information, communication, entertainment, and even personalities (facebook) exist online.  Looking ahead even 10 years, what implications do you see coming from this digital transformation?

Marshall:  One way to look at it is to see what industries will die or transform. We are witnessing the death of the U.S. postal service as we speak. Cable TV as we know it today is likely to collapse. We may finally see the end of paper.  Paper books, paper magazines, newspapers, paper bills, etc. are all on their way out. At the same time we are likely to see the end of physical media like CDs and DVDs.

One unknown has to do with virtual reality. It has waned in the past decade. Does it ever ignite in a way that allows a significant reduction in travel? It is possible to imagine a world where trade shows, conventions, classrooms, meetings, offices, malls, etc. are all replaced by virtual experiences that require no physical travel. Do we ever get to that point, or do people simply like to experience things “in person” so much that VR never really takes off?