Data centers draw a lot of power. That newsy tidbit was one of the conclusions of the Environmental Protection Agency's data center report to Congress, released Aug. 2. While not surprising, the EPA's gross numbers are nonetheless staggering. Data centers used 61 billion kilowatt-hours in 2006, or 1.5% of all power consumed in the United States. The cost: $4.5 billion, or about as much as was spent by 5.8 million average households. Of the total consumption, the feds sucked up about 10% of that power.
What's truly telling is the EPA's forecast of our consumption under different scenarios. If we do nothing, data center power usage will double by 2011. If we all implement what the EPA considers the state of the art, we could lower overall data center power usage to 2001 levels by 2011--a net swing of 90 billion kilowatt hours.
Although the EPA's recommendations were long on generalities (consolidate those servers, etc.) and short on specifics, what's good about them is that they suggest operational reforms, not just adoption of energy-efficient technology. As in our personal lives, we tend to look for technical solutions to operational problems. Sure, switching your quart-a-day Ben & Jerry's habit for a quart a day of Weight Watcher's ice cream might have some health benefit, but nowhere near as much as a little portion control and exercise. So it is with the data center: Buying energy-efficient technology is a fine idea, but you end up much further ahead by rethinking how you use all the technology in the data center you have.
On the downside, the EPA doesn't recommend any actions by Congress. There's an executive order that federal agencies reduce power consumption by a few percentage points each year, but the EPA made no recommendation for financial or tax incentives for private industry. Instead, it recommends recognizing organizations that do well, sort of like the gold stars that your first-grade teacher used. Still, federal recognition of the problem is a positive step; the EPA is working on new Energy Star certifications for a broader range of equipment, including servers and "related product categories," and since the government is a huge customer, manufacturers have a compelling reason to design for that standard.