Energy Consumption, Data Centers, and Heat

15:03 Thu 15 Oct 2009
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The Kardashev Scale is used to measure a civilization’s technology level, using the measure of its energy consumption—or, more accurately, the amount of energy the civilization can harness. In light of the ongoing computing/networking revolution, I’m curious about what percentage of our energy use is by data centers.

The data center explosion is, obviously, driven by increasing adoption of internet technologies. In certain respects it seems like a step back, towards mainframe computing—you have a central location, physical security concerns, energy issues, cooling issues, and so on. I wonder if at any point it will once again make sense to build large single machines rather than tying together many pieces of commodity hardware..

In the meantime, as processors get faster and demand increases, data centers are going to become more energy-hungry, and hotter—which essentially translates to being even more energy-hungry as they need cooling. Hence Iceland’s bid to become a data center haven makes sense, because they have a conveniently cold climate and a conveniently cheap electricity supply.

(The optimist in me hopes that this trend might somehow drive us towards cheap electricity; certainly here in California we don’t make anything near efficient use of natural resources to generate electricity, and of course Buckminster Fuller’s Global Energy Grid would make a lot of sense—but I suspect too many profit-oriented vested interests stand in the way of that; if you’re interested in that topic, see Sharon Beder’s Power Play.)

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