Data Centers and the Environment

Greenpeace has been outspoken recently, denouncing Apple for having inefficient, carbon-spewing data centers. There are worse offenders than Apple, but let’s face it, when the protest is at Apple, more TV cameras show up, and there’s a better chance of making a national story. Also, Apple has certainly had room for improvement in this area. On top of that, as Apple goes, so goes the industry. Directing protests at Apple makes perfect sense if you’re Greenpeace.

For a while now, Yahoo! has been at the top of Greenpeace’s eco-friendly data center list. The guy that built those data centers now works at Apple, and I heard a talk from him yesterday. It was really interesting, and I got the feeling that the environment was important to him personally; that he saw better, cleaner data centers as his legacy.

Mostly I’m going to talk in the abstract here, and when I do mention Apple I’m going to be careful to only say things that I can find in public sources.

I’ve always thought of data centers (warehouses filled with humming computers) as being pretty clean, except for all that dang electricity they suck up. It turns out there are other issues as well, and Greenpeace would do well to broaden the scope of their scrutiny. For instance, modern data centers use a crap-ton of water (that then has to be treated), and they have (literally) tons of lead and sulphuric acid onsite. There’s a bunch of ways besides just consuming electricity that the huge server farms popping up everywhere can hurt the environment.

But let’s start with electricity. There’s no getting around it, computers need the stuff. Data centers are not rated by how much computing power they contain, but by power consumption. Keeping the computers cool is another massive power drain, but it’s WAY better than it used to be. One simple shift made a big difference: cool the computers directly, rather than the room (or even the cabinet) they’re in. Physical changes to allow heat to escape through convection also save a lot of energy. So that’s good news.

Also good news is the efforts of some companies (well, I assume more than one) to provide their own power, onsite, to remove the need for batteries and backup diesel generators. Apple has built a huge fuel-cell plant and a large solar generating farm at its new data center in North Carolina (I’m pretty sure this is where Siri lives). Fuel cells still put out CO2, but Apple is getting their fuel from “biomass” — methane coming out of local garbage dumps. The logic is that putting that gas to use is better than letting it loose in the atmosphere. CO2 bad, CH4 worse.

Now, don’t get all misty-eyed at Apple’s greenness. They do this stuff to make money. If you had a big pile of cash at your disposal, wouldn’t you spend it now to gain immunity from energy price fluctuations in the future? You bet your sweet ass you would. If you can do it in an environmentally responsible way, all the better. (Fuel cells are definitely not the cheapest solution short-term.) But as Apple’s new data centers come on line at a ridiculous rate, Greenpeace is finding less to complain about. And that’s a good thing for everyone. Greenpeace can say, “See? We influenced this giant company and now they’re doing the right thing.” Apple can reply, “We would have done it anyway. It’s good fiscal sense.”

Either way, it’s still a good thing. Although, there’s no getting around the fact that these server farms still use an enormous amount of energy. Even “green” energy puts a burden on the environment — something people seem to forget. So, let’s not get complacent here.

Oh, yeah, and the water thing. Apple’s newest data centers don’t use any. The only burden on the sewer system is the toilet in the office. Take that, Yahoo!

3 thoughts on “Data Centers and the Environment

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Google at all! They make a massive effort to reduce the footprint of their data centres and offices. They’ve been active in advocating for more efficient data centres and in sharing their experiences for other companies to emulate. I don’t think they use all these techniques at every data centre/office, but here’s a few interesting ones that come to mind:

    – Using “grey water” for cooling. Rather than using and re-processing potable water, they use treated sewage water captured from the nearby town’s treatment plant. What doesn’t evaporate is treated on-site before being released.
    – Green roofs – a building that has greenery on its roof is easier to keep cool and is good for local fauna
    – Goats instead of lawn mowers to cut down overgrown fields (my personal favourite)
    – Re-occuring donations to a tree-planting foundation to offset Google’s paper use

    (I’ve been reading the Google blog for a couple years now, haha)

    • That’s all cool. I didn’t mention the Goog because they didn’t come up in the talk I heard. Apple (at least at the data centers in the western US), has chosen to not plant lawns at all, but to keep the native flora. Definitely no goats in evidence at the main campus in Cupertino.

      Interesting about the paper use. While I don’t know anyone who prints their emails these days — and when every employee has a laptop they take to meetings, the paper use is reduced quite a bit — the dream of a paperless office remains just that.

      Important to remember, though, that paper’s environmental impact goes beyond trees.

      I think green roofs are awesome — in the right locations. I’d like to see more of them.

      One thing an Apple big-shot said at the ho-down where I heard from the data center guy is that in the past, Apple has had a policy of not telling anyone when they do something like offsetting paper use or investing in green energy. It probably goes back to Steve Jobs, who seemed to think that seeking praise for doing the right thing undermines why you do the right thing in the first place. There’s definitely a wind-change going on in that department.

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