Global Warming Massive Computer Centers Bad for the Environment

There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately about how much air traffic contributes to global warming. But another damaging culprit has recently been found: the Internet. Computer centers consume massive amounts of energy, and their use is growing astronomically.

When Professor Heinz-Gerd Hegering orders a new supercomputer, he first warns the power company. The power lines in the surrounding Bavarian countryside must be able to handle the additional load. "It's enough to make the engineers break into a sweat," Hegering says.

Hegering's new giant computer, which he plans to install in 2011, won't exactly be energy-efficient. In fact, it sucks as much power from the grid as it takes for a fully loaded, 400-ton high-speed train to accelerate from zero to 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph).

Hegering runs the Leibniz Computer Center, built for Munich's universities, in the nearby town of Garching. The center is already home to one of the world's most powerful supercomputers. The computer is housed in a shimmering cube as tall as a 10-story building. Researchers at the facility conduct simulations of the birth of galaxies or the expansion of seismic waves. That much computing generates a lot of heat.

Metal tubes as thick as tree trunks are suspended from the ceiling, constantly suctioning off the heat rising from the computer cabinets. Without them, professors working there would melt. Powerful pumps inject blasts of cold air through the floors. Visitors, their hair aflutter and surrounded by the roar of the air-conditioning system, experience what it feels like when a frightening amount of data turns into a physical force. The center has a monthly electric bill of €120,000 ($185,000).

Several floors of the cube-like building are filled with power sets and refrigeration machines that keep the computers running. The loudest machines are the ones with heavy flywheels, which produce a loud whine with their ceaseless rotation. If the power fails, the machines jump into action with lightning speed, feeding their energy back into the building's power grid. They provide enough power in those critical first few seconds to protect the computers before the backup power supplies and diesel generators kick in.

Impact in Numbers

While computerized devices continue to shrink, the auxiliary machinery surrounding them is constantly growing. The Leibniz Computer Center, which opened only two years ago, is already too small. The next computer will contain about 100,000 processors -- compared with the current incarnation's 9,728 -- in the same amount of space. But electricity and cooling requirements, as well as the need to supply and extract energy, will increase so substantially that the computer center will have to expand. The current cube-like structure will be transformed into an elongated rectangular block, floor space will increase by half, and power requirements will rise from two to almost eight megawatts.

"Operating costs were not as important in the past," says Hegering. "Today, it's a critical factor."

This change is not limited to the exclusive world of supercomputers. In fact, it is far more significant among ordinary PCs, as their numbers are growing so rapidly. The Internet, in particular, is responsible for consuming a growing proportion of global power production. The computer centers of network operators often contain thousands of PCs used as servers. According to surveys conducted by the market research firm IDC, between 2000 and 2005, the power consumption of network computers doubled worldwide.

PCs, which are derided in professional circles as "heat blowers," can hardly be operated in an energy-saving manner, partly because it is impossible to utilize thousands of individual computers in a computer center at the same level. In fact, most of them are chronically underutilized.

For years, no one cared. In the frenzy of the Internet boom, companies kept adding new computers, and when things got too hot in their computer rooms, they simply ordered additional cooling machines. But now that electricity prices have risen sharply, this power consumption is suddenly painfully noticeable. "Nowadays," says IDC expert Thomas Meyer, "there are 50 cents in electricity costs for every euro in the price of a server. It'll be 70 cents by 2009."

Industry Responds

It is no coincidence that search engine giant Google is building its newest computer center near the Dalles Dam, a huge hydroelectric power plant in Oregon. Buying electricity directly from the plant costs one-fifth as much as Google would be paying in California. Besides, the Columbia River supplies inexpensive water to operate the eight multistory cooling towers designed to handle the waste heat from tens of thousands of computers.

Users are accustomed to the results of their searches appearing on their computer screens almost magically. Calculations have now been performed to determine the share of power consumption that can be attributed to a single Google search. Depending on the initial data, one Google search consumes enough electricity to run an 11-watt, energy-saving lightbulb for 15 minutes to an hour.

As long as Google refuses to release numbers, such calculations will remain only a guessing game. But one thing is certain: In 2006, according to a study commissioned by the German Environment Ministry, Germany's roughly 50,000 computer centers consumed as much electricity as a nuclear power plant can produce in the same amount of time.

This thirst for energy also affects the climate. Economists with the US-based information technology research firm Gartner estimate that computer technology (including telephones, mobile wireless networks and printers) is now responsible for 2 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions -- or, in other words, just as much as all air traffic does.

These numbers reveal that the sheer, disembodied lightness of the data world is nothing but a pretty illusion. In fact, it is a world built on real world data processing factories that, when it comes to power consumption, are reminiscent of the early days of industrialization. Computing with electrons is just as physical as the melting of steel or rolling of sheet metal. In both cases, no one cared much about resource consumption during the early phases.

A Server to Call Your Own

The Web hosting company 1&1 Internet operates one of its three German computer centers in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe. The building is made to look like a warehouse, apparently so as to deter anyone form hitting upon the nefarious idea of severing one of the information society's life-giving arteries. The computer center is one of Karlsruhe's 10 biggest electricity consumers.

1&1 sells its customers storage space for their homepages and fast connections. Because the company, as a low-cost provider, has had to keep its costs down from the very beginning, it uses software it developed itself to store hundreds of homepages on a single network computer. However, 30,000 of the computers in 1&1's Karlsruhe facility run around the clock for individual customers, such as small businesses, which pay an additional fee for this exclusive service. These private servers are often used at only 10 percent of capacity, while some are almost always idle. Even then, they still use half as much electricity as a computer in full use.

Some customers need the security of having their own, dedicated PC. But others are probably more interested in the privilege of being able to call something akin to a vacation home in the data world their own. The €69 ($106) monthly fee doesn't scare them off, and demand for the service is growing.

Saving More Than the Environment

Large companies, on the other hand, are far more sensitive to cost pressures. Many have already started bringing together their scattered computer technology in a few locations, so that equipment can be utilized more efficiently. Citigroup, for example, is building an electricity-saving mega-computer center in Frankfurt for its European and African assets, which the bank praises as a contribution to climate protection. Before long, the new center will allow Citigroup to close many smaller data factories.

Computer maker IBM, which once operated 160 computer centers worldwide, has been especially determined to centralize its operations. Today, IBM has only seven computer centers, and it hopes to develop a new industry based on growing energy-consciousness. The company has announced its "Big Green" initiative, in which it plans to devote $1 billion (€650 million) a year to the development of "green," climate-protecting computer technology.

The IBM effort focuses on the mainframe computer. Intricate technology allows such computers to operate like an amalgamation of individual PCs and, as a result, they can replace hundreds of individual computers at a fraction of their combined operating cost. This is because the individual shadow machines are only allocated as much of the mainframe computer's computing power as they actually need. The technology, known in the industry as "virtualization," utilizes the hardware far more efficiently across the board. "We save up to 80 percent of the energy while providing the same computing power," says IBM expert Thomas Tauer.

The company now dreams of a return of the mainframe computers with which it once dominated the computer world. Ironically, the victory march of the inexpensive PC had turned this species into a curiosity of the past. With the exception of major banks and insurance companies, hardly anyone seemed to need the bulky, expensive giants. But now the dinosaurs are back, and IBM reports growing demand.

Power in Numbers

Nevertheless, few companies have any use for their own mainframe. The future of these behemoths lies in leasing, rather than selling, their computing power. "Not every small or mid-sized company needs its own computer center," says IBM expert Heinz-Hubert Weusthof. "At least some of the work can be outsourced."

Companies, such as IBM and HP, already offer central mainframes for services that can be leased through high-speed data connections, whether it is for the payroll accounting of an automotive supplier or the inventory control of a retail chain. For customers, this is like having electronic data processing right out of the socket.

This sort of centralization, which has been underway for some time, is now being touted as climate-friendly. IBM, for example, aims to double the performance of its own computer centers in the coming years without increasing power consumption.

Handling the Heat

The most important factor in saving energy is heat dissipation. Until now, it was customary in the industry to cool entire computer centers like refrigerators. Now, though, more intelligent solutions are catching on, such as blowing cold air directly at the hot processors and suctioning off the heated air before it mixes with the expensively cooled air.

Of course, this doesn't change the fact that more and more waste heat is escaping unused into the atmosphere. Each watt of electricity that has been used to run a computer has to be disposed of as heat. Why not use the waste heat as a source of building heat? Couldn't a company with a computer center in the basement do away with its heating system?

In most cases, security concerns preclude such use. Banks and insurance companies, for example, depend on computer centers with multiple safeguards against failure. As a rule, they have two independent main lines to the electric utility's transformer station. In addition, the computer centers must be housed in freestanding buildings, so that incidents -- such as water main breaks or fires -- cannot jeopardize sensitive operations. For this reason, most data factories are located in industrial areas or in the countryside.

Professor Hegering isn't subject to such stringent procedures at his center in Garching. Although his supercomputer goes by the impressive name of "Federal Maximum Performance Computer" (meaning that all German universities have access to it), the occasional power outage isn't quite as serious a problem in academic computing. "When that happens," says Hegering, "we just pick up again where we were interrupted."

This allows the Leibniz Computer Center to conduct the waste heat from the processors through water pipes into the adjacent administrative wing of the building. In the winter, the supercomputer heats the offices of 140 employees. Group manager Herbert Huber is pleased with the level of comfort in the offices. "We do have a conventional heating system installed, but only as a backup," says Huber. "I've never had to use it."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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