Taming our virtual smokestacks

Google’s data centre in The Dalles, OregonAt Google's data centre in Douglas County, Georgia, a maze of coloured pipes sends and receives recycled water to cool the huge facility, where employees use G-Bikes to get around.


"Data centres are the smokestack industry of the 21st century."

– David Wright

What could be more environmentally benign than a Google search? With the click of a mouse, words appear on the screen and you have the answer to a question. No trees were felled, no landscape was razed, no greenhouse gases were emitted—no harm done.

Or so it would seem. In fact, the spectacular growth of the world’s information technology and communications networks has been sustained by the proliferation of data centres. These integrated hubs of computing power can range from a few workstations in a university laboratory to entire hectares filled with thousands of powerful servers storing and relaying data. The largest of data centres consist of nondescript, boxy buildings that look like nothing more than shipping containers; yet they contain electronics that draw huge amounts of electricity, not to mention the air conditioning needed to prevent them from overheating.

David Wright, a professor with the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, says the electricity consumption of these centres has been doubling every eight years and they are projected to produce 180 megatonnes of carbon emissions globally in 2013.

“Data centres are the smokestack industry of the 21st century,” he observes.

In other words, even the most modest Google search has environmental consequences. Data centres must draw electricity from somewhere, whether it is a renewable energy source such as wind turbines or a traditional coal-fired generating station. Apart from the reliability and cost associated with these different sources, a growing number of jurisdictions, including the European Union, New Zealand, China, California and Quebec are operating emissions trading schemes to buy and sell carbon credits.

Not surprisingly, the manufacturers of information technology hardware continue to set new standards for energy efficiency. “The engineers have done a grand job—the carbon emissions per bit of information have gone down dramatically,” explains Wright. But he adds that the sheer growth in the volume of information has meant that total carbon emissions associated with this technology have steadily risen.

The good news is that the flow of information can be deftly managed with software to lower both electricity costs and carbon emissions simultaneously. Wright and his colleagues have been working on scheduling software that takes the form of an algorithm for determining when and where to carry out data processing activities.

When you use a credit card in a store, for example, you want the necessary information processing to happen immediately. The data centre that does the job will have to settle for whatever the price of electricity is at that time. The store owner, however, will compile the details of this and other sales later, which can be done anytime overnight. Wright’s algorithm can schedule this information processing to happen whenever electricity rates are at their lowest.

A similar strategy can reduce the carbon emissions related to such transactions. If two or more data centres can do the job at any given time, and one of them has significantly lower emissions because it is drawing power from a renewable energy grid, the software can direct its request to that site.

In this way, Wright told a data centre management conference in Toronto last fall, the algorithm has demonstrated substantial electricity cost savings and carbon footprint reduction. For activities that must take place immediately, electricity costs can be cut by more than eight percent and carbon output lowered by more than 11 percent. Even greater gains are made when activities can be postponed— a simultaneous reduction of more than 51 percent of electricity costs and 13 percent of carbon emissions. “A data centre manager can not only reduce the electric power bill,” he says, “but can also make additional money selling carbon credits.”

Canada is already staking out new frontiers in this field. Wright refers to the GreenStar Network, a project funded by Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network (CANARIE). Participants have been examining how even complex interactions such as video conferences can be rerouted among data centres to minimize costs and greenhouse gas emissions. As part of this project, the Canadian Standards Association developed the world’s first standard on greenhouse gas reduction at data centres.

This approach is new to the International Electrotechnical Commission, the body that standardizes electronic products such as data centres. Wright notes that Canadians are introducing this concept, based on the groundbreaking research that has taken place in this country.

“Canada is already a leader,” he concludes. “We are developing international standards based on the Canadian standard.”


by Tim Lougheed

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