A Microsoft data center in a former bean field in Washington made headlines in September, after The New York Times sent reporters to take a look at one of Microsoft's "clouds" and found conditions far from sunny.
While few would dispute that there's an incongruence between the marketing speak of saving data to a fluffy entity in the sky and the literally acres of sometimes-diesel-fueled machinery that make remote data storage possible, there's also a spectrum of realities involved. In a new report, 451 Research argues that while the proliferation of cloud computing services will continue to place demand and public focus on data centers, these centers—particularly when knowledge is shared—can be "engines of innovation in efficiencies."
The group studied the data centers of a number of companies and found data center design, facilities and IT groups becoming, on the whole, more energy efficient and, in some instances, even "exemplars" of efficiency. Among the most efficient companies, it found six emergent trends.
The first, being used by Facebook, eBay and Bell Canada among others, said the report, is an "integrated approach" that puts an "emphasis on collaboration between data center facilities and IT operations within an organization and between an organization and the consultants and vendors it hires."
A second is "innovations in cooling" that include using outside air (called "free cooling"), dynamic cooling and liquid cooling. According to 451 Group, Microsoft is among the companies using this technique.
"Renewable power that is generated on-site or through the local utility, as part of data center energy-efficient design and/or data center siting decisions" is another trend. Two others are direct-current (DC) power distribution and strong collaborations with IT department, which can help out by virtualizing and consolidating servers.
"There are also rumblings of solid-state storage being deployed as a resource-saving measure," according to the report.
A final example was prefabricated modular (PFM) data centers, which in themselves aren't more efficient but enable companies to achieve efficiencies by avoiding "infrastructure overcapacity."
Greenpeace has been a vocal critic of what it calls "data farms" and in April released a report titled "How Clean Is Your Cloud?" It graded the clouds of major companies, heavily criticized Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, and gave the iCloud owner a D in energy efficiency and an F in infrastructure siting. (Apple, which nearly always ignores the press, responded that it was building the "greenest data center ever built.")
While media scrutiny of data centers is a reason for companies to pursue green initiatives, said 451 Research, the greater motivator is that energy efficiencies address data center operators' three most pressing concerns: capacity, cost and reliability.
A survey by the Uptime Institute, a division of the 451 Group "which canvassed 1,100 data center decision makers from the Americas, Europe and Asia during the first half of 2012, shows that energy-efficiency improvements are seen by most as a way to reduce operational costs," said the report. "Almost half of respondents say energy efficiency leads to the discovery of newly freed-up data center capacity."
Of those decision makers, 8 percent described their pursuit of energy efficiencies as motivated by a desire to keep pace with their industry peers; 17 percent cited compliance or regulations as a driver; and 47 percent said they were looking to free up capacity, while 82 percent named "financial savings" as a motivator.
Microsoft responded to The Times story—which included a description of diesel generators operating for thousands of hours and sending carcinogenic clouds toward a nearby school—by saying that The Times "conflated" the key challenges of efficiency and utilization and in doing so made inaccurate suggestions.
"In doing so," Microsoft added, "the article fails to recognize that not all data centers are created equal, nor are the operations and software applications running inside those data centers equally utilized."