Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

IT, Resource Productivity, Environmental Preservation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Sunday New York Times Article: Are Data centers Really ‘Wasteful’

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wasteful |ˈwāstfəl|, adjective
(of a person, action, or process) using or expending something of value carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose : wasteful energy consumption. (Source: New Oxford American Dictionary)

Is it really true that “Data centers waste vast amounts of energy”, as headlined in Sunday’s NYT article?

Well, data centers are certainly not expending energy for no purpose: every time you click on a web link, edit a document online, etc., ( 1000s of times a day?), you are being served by a data center. So unless your activity is without purpose, that dimension of wasteful doesn’t hold.

Likewise, data centers are certainly not extravagant (lacking restraint in spending money or using resources), as most of them are managed by publicly held companies that are under severe pressure by shareholders to maximize value.

Which brings me to the last dimension of wasteful: operating carelessly (not giving sufficient attention or thought to avoiding harm or errors). As pointed out by others, e.g., here, rapid technological progress in the past five years as well as increased attention to cutting costs and energy use has led to significantly more efficient operations in the industry. So this is somewhat subjective (and probably a fair criticism of many industries).

Is there a long way to go, yes. In particular, it would be nice if better metrics were developed to enable the general public to connect the services they are getting to the energy that is being consumed (PUE doesn’t really cut it for that) as well as to compare the relative efficiency of different data centers.

How efficient can data centers become? How do we measure that? What amount of energy and greenhouse gas emissions are we willing to expend to get the services we demand? And how do information services (served by data centers) compare with common substitutes (like video conferencing instead of taking a plane flight). These are questions that I hope the NYT series will cover in upcoming articles.

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Author: nigelpm

Associate Professor of Information Systems, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan - Helping organizations to navigate digital transformation.

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